NEW ORLEANS — Scottie Wilbekin won't turn 18 years old until April 5. Right about now, he should be getting fitted for his prom tuxedo.
Instead, when No. 2 seed Florida plays No. 3 BYU tonight in the NCAA Tournament region semifinals, Wilbekin and the other Florida reserves could be a key factor in the game's outcome.
Wilbekin, freshman center Patric Young, freshman forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguete, and sophomore forward Erik Murphy have become an integral part of the Gators' team.
"I think we've made a pretty good contribution, coming in and providing sparks of defense and sometimes sparks of offense," Wilbekin said. "I think we just try to get in where we fit in and provide whatever help we can that they need."
And that has made Florida a much different team than the one that lost in double overtime to BYU in the first round of last season's NCAA Tournament.
"I think we are better as a team," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "This year, with the addition of Scottie, Patric, with Erik Murphy being a year older, Will Yeguete, Prather off the bench, I think we're a little bit deeper of a team than maybe we were a year ago. But both teams are better. That's the challenge right now. Can we play better than we did against them the last time? We could play better and still not be good enough to beat them."
If the freshmen have their way, the answer is yes.
In last week's third-round NCAA Tournament game, Young battled UCLA's 300-pound plus center Josh Smith while starter Vernon Macklin was in foul trouble. Wilbekin, along with starting guard Erving Walker, tied up UCLA forward Tyler Honeycutt, causing a critical late turnover.
"It's been unbelievable," senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "Those guys understand their role perfectly. They come in and give us energy, and we don't miss a beat when those guys are in the game.
"I think the biggest thing with them is they understand their role. No one is going to come in here and take bad shots or expect to score 20 points. Everyone plays great and plays unselfish. Especially Scottie, he's supposed to be a senior in high school and he's playing outstanding for us right now. Our whole freshman class has been giving us a huge lift all year long."
In last year's first-round game, UF guard Kenny Boynton held BYU star guard Jimmer Fredette to 23 points in regulation. But Fredette finished with 37. Parsons played 46 minutes in that game, Walker 44 and Boynton 40. This year, there will be help.
"I think Scottie and Casey can come in for me, and they are definitely going to be a key in this game," Boynton said. "I think I probably will need a breather running around with Fredette on the outside, and I think when they come in, basically their focus level has to be on point, and they can help out a lot."
"Coach is not as afraid to use subs as maybe he was last year, so that gives us guys extra rest," Walker added. "And then when they come in, they contribute, they don't just give us a blow. And even in practice, they just push us and make us better."
And in the process, they've gotten better themselves. While coaches acknowledge there was no way to know how much of a contribution the young players would have, their contribution has been immeasurable.
"I think what's happened is as we've had success over the course of the year, it's been easier for the younger guys to accept their roles," Florida assistant coach Rob Lanier said. "Success justifies it. It justifies that role. It says you know what, if you let the seniors play this role, and the upperclassmen do this, this is what can happen for our team. And they've actually grown in the last three or four weeks because now they are saying this is what Coach was talking about. Things are starting to crystallize for them."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.