Thursday, September 20, 2018
Sports

Scottie Wilbekin staying keeps the Gators going

MEMPHIS

None of these moments were promised to him. Not the run through the cheerleaders or the blur of the crowd or the teammates slapping his back. Not the sound of the pep band or the glare from the opposing point guard.

This was someone else's future, not his. This was someone else's smile. … Scottie Wilbekin had thrown it all away, the 3-pointers and the reckless drives and the no-look passes, and now his head coach was pointing him toward the door. Go and be someone else's disappointment. Go and be someone else's headache. Billy Donovan had had enough.

Which, history tells us, is where the darndest thing happened.

Wilbekin stayed.

And he grew up.

If you are looking for a moment when the success started, when the Gators went from being an assortment of players to a team worth watching, this is as good a place as any to look. This was the moment when Scottie refused to go, and the moment when the Gators began to grow. This was the start of it all.

Can you imagine this team without him?

Can you imagine the Gators trying to survive without Wilbekin's impossible shot in the lane Thursday against UCLA in the South Region semifinal? Can you imagine them without his 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer last weekend against Pitt? Can you imagine them without Wilbekin taking on most of the heavy lifting throughout the season?

Actually, Donovan could. And he was willing to take his chances.

Sometimes, a team faces a key moment in its season early. For the Gators, it was that way in June, when Wilbekin was suspended for the second time in a year for a still undisclosed violation. On the court, Wilbekin had always been a tameless horse for Donovan, but this time, the coach was fed up.

"He needed to regain credibility inside of our team," Donovan said. "He had lost all his credibility. He had a lack of awareness of how choices and decisions he made affected or impacted other people. He never knew that.

"I think he realized that I was serious when I told him he needed to transfer and just move on. Start fresh somewhere else.''

At other places, with other players, that would have been it. Wilbekin would have been gone. He would have landed somewhere else, and Florida still would have been decent. But Wilbekin wouldn't go. The Gainesville native moved in with his parents. He practiced for two months on his own in an empty gym. He lifted weights by himself.

He earned his way back, one drop of sweat at a time.

Along the way, he won back his coach, and his team, and his fans.

"I didn't want to transfer," Wilbekin, 20, said. "I couldn't see myself playing for another coach with other teammates. The relationships with the guys have been so special, and it's near and dear to me. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

"It was extremely hard. The hardest thing I've been through. But, looking back, it was all worth it."

After that, Wilbekin became the SEC player of the year. And the SEC tournament MVP. And an All-American. And the biggest go-to Gator on this year's team.

"He's a guy who loves challenges," Donovan said, "and what I was presenting was a real challenge. I'd kind of painted a picture that said I didn't believe he could do it or he would do it."

These days, no one doubts Wilbekin. He is the player the other Gators want to have the ball in the most pressurized moments. Hard to believe, then, that Wilbekin has made so little noise in his three Elite Eights. He was 0-for-1 as a freshman, 1-for-2 as a sophomore and 1-for-6 last year. Then again, he wasn't the same level of player, either. That was early in his journey.

"It's been an up-and-down road," Wilbekin said. "The journey has been a struggle at times, but it's also had a lot of highs this year. It's been a great season, so much fun I just want to keep it going as long as I can."

Center Patric Young, Wilbekin's long-time teammate, has seen the changes in the point guard.

"I've seen tremendous maturity and growth in Scottie through this whole process," Young said. "A guy who almost hit rock bottom and saw just how fragile his basketball career is to just wanting to build that trust back. It hasn't been easy, but he knows that we all loved him and supported him through it all. He just showed us how much he loves the game, how invested he is to this team, how much of a competitor he is."

Today, Wilbekin gets one more chance to prove himself. No one promised this, either. No one said he would get the ball at the perimeter with the game clock ticking down. No one said the world would watch him at play.

In that way, these are the best days. These are the ones he won for himself.

Somewhere along the line, maybe he will make Donovan smile.

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