Wilbekin, Donovan, Randle take AP SEC honors
ATLANTA (AP) After an unbeaten run through the Southeastern Conference, top-ranked Florida reaped its rewards Monday.
Scottie Wilbekin was picked as The Associated Press Southeastern Conference player of the year, while Billy Donovan took the coaching honor for the second season in a row.
Kentucky freshman Julius Randle was selected as newcomer of the year.
The AP awards were announced one day after Florida defeated Kentucky 61-60 in the championship game of the SEC tournament. The Gators (32-2) were named top overall seed in the NCAAs and will open against either Albany or Mount St. Mary’s in the South Regional.
Wilbekin and Randle were unanimous choices to the All-SEC first team, joined by Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, Florida forward Casey Prather and Missouri guard Jabari Brown.
Wilbekin averaged 13 points and 3.8 assists a game. More important, the 6-foot-2 senior guard was the unquestioned leader for the Gators at both ends of the court, making amends from two suspensions that threatened his future with the program.
He missed the first five games this season for an undisclosed violation of team rules, after behind held out the first three games the previous year.
”I think when he went through that, our guys were like, `OK, it happened one time, `blah, blah, blah.’ But now it happens again, guys start pulling back, saying, `OK, man, is this guy about us? Does this guy even care about us or our team?”’ Donovan said.
Wilbekin worked hard to rebuild the relationship with his teammates, and it showed on the court.
”He had to go through a long process of showing these guys that he cares and he’s committed to them,” Donovan said. ”I think once he got through the end of that process, I think our guys kind of put their arms around him and were like, `Wow, coach made this guy go through a lot.’ A lot of that had to do with me wanting to help him restore his credibility inside the team, and he had to do that and he’s grown from that on and off the court.”
Wilbekin was named MVP of the SEC tournament. During hard-fought wins in both the semifinals and final, he would gather the team around him when things weren’t going Florida’s way.
”Coach can’t talk to us all the time,” he said, ”so we try to huddle ourselves and say the right things among ourselves.”
Donovan repeated as coach of the year with Florida becoming the first team to go 18-0 in SEC games during the regular season. The Gators won three more games at the Georgia Dome this past weekend for their first tournament title since 2007.
”Anytime you get those coaching honors or coaching awards, a lot of it is because you’ve got a good group and they’ve done a great job,” Donovan said. ”I do think that when individual awards come out, it’s much, much more of a reflection of the people around you. Even with Scottie’s award, I’d say the same thing. It’s more of a reflection of the people around him. I think for me, it’s the players and the coaching staff, the people I have around me.”
Randle emerged as the top player from Kentucky’s latest group of heralded freshmen. While some thought the Wildcats (24-10) underachieved – after all, they started the season No. 1 and there was even speculation about whether they could go unbeaten – the 6-foot-9 Randle led the conference in rebounding (10.5 a game) and ranked 10th in scoring (15.0).
Kentucky was seeded eighth in the NCAAs and will open Friday against Kansas State in the Midwest Regional.
”I feel like our chemistry is getting better,” Randle said. ”We’re becoming a better team, getting better every game.”
Stokes, a 6-8 junior forward, helped Tennessee (21-12) join Florida and Kentucky as the only SEC schools in the 68-team NCAA field, ranking second to Randle in rebounding (10.3) and 12th in scoring (14.7). The Vols will face Iowa on Wednesday in a first-round game at Dayton.
Prather was another of Florida’s senior leaders. The 6-6 forward paced the Gators in scoring at 14.2 points per game.
Brown, a 6-5 junior guard, led the SEC in scoring with an average of 19.8 points.
Florida landed another player on the All-SEC second team: senior center Patric Young. He was joined by Tennessee forward Jordan McRae, Alabama guard Trevor Releford and a pair of LSU forwards, Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey. McRae and Releford both slipped to the second team after making the top squad in 2013.
The 66th annual AP All-SEC team was selected by a 12-member regional media panel.
AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963