In senior season that almost wasn’t, Wilbekin leading Gators in NCAAs

ORLANDO, Fla. — Nine months ago, Scottie Wilbekin was at a crossroads. Suspended for the second time in as many seasons for an unspecified “violation of team rules,” the Florida senior guard and Gainesville, Fla., native didn’t know what his future was with the Gators, if he had one at all.

Things got so bad between Wilbekin and coach Billy Donovan that Donovan even suggested Wilbekin might be best served to just finish his career with another program.

“I think he realized that I was serious when I told him he needed to transfer and just move on and start fresh somewhere else,” Donovan said after Florida beat Pittsburgh Saturday to advance to its fourth straight Sweet 16. “I think once he made that commitment that he wanted to finish out his career here, he wanted to work his way back.”

The path back wouldn’t be easy, however. It started with a five-game ban that included the Gators’ November loss to Wisconsin, one of just two Florida defeats this season. It also required Wilbekin to move back in with his parents to help keep the 20-year-old distraction-free as he tried to regain the trust of his coach and teammates.

Final Four . . . for four

“He needed to regain his credibility inside of our team,” Donovan said. “He had lost all his credibility, so I tried to put him in a situation where he could show his commitment to the rest of those guys.”

In the end, though, the message got through, and on Saturday it was Wilbekin, seemingly reformed and moved on from the issues of last summer and the year prior, who led the Gators with 21 points in the team’s 61-45 win.

“I did not think Scottie played particularly well in (Thursday’s second round) game against Albany,” Donovan said, referring to Wilbekin’s 10-point showing against the 16th-seeded Great Danes. “It was good to see him come back and respond the way he did today. I thought all the way around, he played very well.”

Wilbekin’s defensive effort Saturday was certainly admirable, holding Pitt star Lamar Patterson to just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting. But it was on offense where Wilbekin truly starred, taking command against a physical Pitt unit hell-bent on disrupting the Gators’ flow.

Wilbekin started by making a 3-pointer on his first shot attempt, but his impact was first truly felt at the end of the first half, when he made a running, buzzer-beater 3 to give Florida a 27-22 lead going into the break. In the second half Wilbekin picked up where he left off, at one point scoring 13 of 15 Florida points as the Gators kept a Panthers rally at bay.

FOUL BALL

“Coach was really getting on us and challenging us and just asking us if that was the team that we wanted to be in these last couple of games that we have,” Wilbekin said of the team’s preparation for the No. 9 seed Pitt. “We just wanted to come out and not let them play harder than us or (have them) not let us play as hard as we can.”

“This is probably the best I’ve seen him play,” added Pitt guard Cameron Wright, who scored seven points on 3-of-10 shooting in the loss. “It’s fortunate for Florida that he is playing his best basketball right now.”

And it’s probably no coincidence that Wilbekin, who started his career at Florida as a 17-year-old freshman after graduating a year early from high school, is at the top of his game now that his issues seem to be behind him.

“I think it’s helped me become a better leader, be more connected with my teammates and coach,” Wilbekin said when asked how his personal development has helped him on the floor. “It’s helped me play with a freer mind.”

Added Donovan: “He had a lack of awareness of how choices and decisions he made affected or impacted other people, and he never understood that. … These younger guys on our team look up to him; there’s other people that are looking at how he acts and what he does. I think he is a kid that learned some valuable lessons.”

Florida hasn’t lost since Dec. 2, a span of 28 games, and, indeed, it seems they’re only getting better as the season draws to a close. Many have them penciled in as a favorite to win the entire NCAA tournament — which would represent the third national championship of Donovan’s career — but if they’re going to do that, it’ll be on Wilbekin’s back.

Should the top-seeded Gators advance to the national semifinal, it’ll take place on Wilbekin’s 21st birthday, and for a guy who has been put through the wringer over the last couple years, a win would be a fitting ending to a senior season that nearly wasn’t.

“He’s a senior, he’s a really good player, he’s been through some ups and downs, obviously, and he’s had a great finish to his career,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. “That’s what you hope happens to a kid that learns and gets better. … I’m sure they’re proud of him and what he’s become.”

Donovan, it seems, couldn’t agree more.

“For me, it’s been one of the great experiences for me as a coach going through what he and I have gone through together,” Donovan said. “People get a chance maybe to see him grow as a player — I got a chance to see him grow as a person.”

The methodology behind Wilbekin’s personal transformation may have been unconventional — not every coach tells a senior starter he should shape up or get out — but with the benefit of hindsight, the gamble was completely worth it.

“He’s a guy that loves challenges, and in his own way, what I was presenting in front of him was a real, real challenge,” Donovan said. “Because I’d kind of painted a picture that said ‘I don’t believe you can do it or will do it.’ I said time will tell, and I think he thrived on that.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.