GAINESVILLE — As his teammates began to notice the improved level of play in Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin's defense last season, they took the liberty of borrowing the nickname of another stellar defensive player.
"We called him the 'Honey Badger' last year," senior forward Erik Murphy said. "Obviously he's probably our best on-ball guy. The guy's relentless."
That relentless style (with a nickname borrowed from former LSU football standout Tyrann Mathieu) is evident even more this season and is a direct reflection of the way the Gators play, particularly of late. UF has held three opponents this season to 40 points or fewer, 11 under 50 and 15 under 60. The Gators rank second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average 50.4 points per game.
Wilbekin is helping lead the way with no qualms.
"Just growing up playing for my dad (Svend Wilbekin at the Rock School in Gainesville), we always did defensive drills," the junior said. "I was always a defensive-minded player. I guess it was just ingrained in me from a young age. And when I came in (as a 17-year-old freshman), I saw that's where I would be needed most and I could get my playing time."
Three years into his tenure, he is the starting point guard and has held his own while taking on some of the league's best guards. In Florida's win over Texas A&M, he was critical in limiting Elston Turner to four points and 1 of 10 shooting; in his previous game, against Kentucky, Turner had scored 40. Against No. 17 Missouri, Wilbekin held star guard Phil Pressey to two points and 1 of 7 shooting from the field. Pressey also was forced into 10 turnovers.
"I want to shut everybody down that I'm playing," Wilbekin said.
No. 4 Florida needs that mentality again tonight against No. 16 Mississippi in a sold-out game at the O'Connell Center between the SEC's top teams. The game features one of the league's newest players, junior guard Marshall Henderson, who leads the SEC in scoring (19.3 points per game) and ranks third in the nation averaging 3.8 3-pointers per game.
Wilbekin has provided the Gators not only with a serious stopper, he has given them stability at point guard, something they lacked during his three-game suspension to begin the season.
"He's been doing a great job facilitating the offense, not taking bad shots," junior center Patric Young said. "He's been starting to become a double-double machine with points and assists. It's just been really good seeing someone like him finally getting recognized for how good he is."
He has also improved on offense, averaging 9.1 points. He had his first career double double against Missouri.
"I think he's been playing the same way, but he's shut down bigger guys this year," senior guard Kenny Boynton said. "I think last year he had the same defensive mind-set, but I think his offensive game has evolved this year."
The matchup between Wilbekin and Henderson has been highly anticipated, but Wilbekin downplayed it this week, saying his role doesn't change regardless of the opponent. That's a sign of maturity coach Billy Donovan approves of.
"I think he's gotten better," Donovan said. "Scottie's done a really, really good job of finding people when they're open. He's made really good decisions, and I think he's made it even easier for other people around him. And then on the other side, we've also got some really, really good defensive performances out of him against some really talented, good players inside this league."