GAINESVILLE — At 17 years, 5 months, Scottie Wilbekin is supposed to be in the fourth month of his senior year of high school.
Instead, when No. 9 Florida hosts No. 4 Ohio State tonight at the O'Connell Center, Wilbekin most likely will be the first player off the bench for the Gators.
After sitting out the final exhibition game with a strained neck, the freshman from Gainesville played 17 minutes in his debut Friday against UNC Wilmington, posting five assists and four steals, the most by a UF freshman in a debut since Corey Brewer (five) in 2004.
Wilbekin, who decided during the summer to graduate early and enroll this season, gives the Gators a spark and provides depth at guard, which they lacked last season.
And though it's early, coach Billy Donovan said Wilbekin's discipline is a major reason he's already a solid contributor.
"I think the biggest thing that he's done that's really been impressive to me, and I think our team has got to get better with this, is that he's really a disciplined kid," Donovan said. "And when I say disciplined, he really does the right things at the right time. And I think when you talk about the disciplined part of doing your job and doing what you need to do, that's what I think has really enabled him to come in and play, because he's a very disciplined kid."
The Gators backcourt will be tested against a Buckeyes team with three starting guards who are 6 feet 5 or taller: David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford. And that's where having Wilbekin will come in handy. Last season, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton averaged 33 minutes per game. In a physical game like the Gators anticipate tonight, depth will be key.
"They will really challenge us on the press," said Walker, listed at 5 feet 8. "This is a big game for us on the press. Being that they're bigger, we want to take away things like walking the ball and setting up. We want to speed them up."
Walker said even though it has been only one game, he likes Wilbekin's chances of being able to hold his own tonight.
"We have to wait and see, but … he'll be ready," Walker said. "Especially if we get the tempo going up and down, I think he's more than ready. I like him to defend those guys fullcourt just as much as me or Kenny. He's good at that, too; that's a big part of his game."
Wilbekin has approached the season with humility. The Gators need his defense more than his shooting, and he will have to do whatever's necessary.
"I really didn't anticipate anything coming into the season," he said. "I just came in with the mind-set that I'm going to get the minutes that I'm going to get and when I'm in there I'm just going to play my hardest and try to do everything Coach asks me to do."
That attitude has quickly endeared him to teammates.
"I like Scottie's game," sophomore guard Boynton said. "The first game he showed everyone that he could come in and play a defensive role with intensity. I think Scottie has an offensive game that hasn't been brought out yet, but as the year goes on, he's just going to get better and better."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.