Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Sports

Gator Wilbekin's task: stop Michigan's Burke

ARLINGTON, Texas

Some players shoot. Some players score. Some players star.

You know, like Trey Burke.

The world is his now. The cameras follow him, and the critics love him, and he lives his life in the highlight reels. Burke, the sensational guard from Michigan, can light it up from anywhere, and he picks the very best moments to do so.

Some players grind. Some players sweat. Some players scratch out an existence between the lines of the stat sheet.

You know, like Scottie Wilbekin.

You do not notice him. He does the dirty work for the Florida Gators, handling the ball, taking on the best offensive threat of the other team and trying to make his day a little more difficult. If Burke is an artist in the game of college basketball, Wilbekin is a house painter.

That is where it starts today, with this beauty and the beast matchup between the starter for Michigan and the stopper for Florida. If the Gators are going to survive this Elite Eight matchup — and in the past two years, they have not — it will be largely because of Wilbekin's attempts at slowing down Burke.

For all of the defensive assignments that Wilbekin has faced this year, this is the most the Gators have asked of him. Burke is a star, perhaps the star of this NCAA Tournament. It was his deep, deep jumper in the late going Friday that allowed the Wolverines to beat Kansas. At one point, Michigan trailed by 14 in the second half, then Burke took over and the Jayhawks were merely playing chase.

Can Wilbekin head a defense that will stop Burke?

He'd better.

Oh, Florida coach Billy Donovan will point out how the Gators will need a complete defensive performance. But with UF, defense starts with Wilbekin and that gristle inside of the 6-foot-2 junior from Gainesville that makes him take the task seriously. This time, Wilbekin has no doubts about the importance of his defense.

"I would say he's the toughest player I've faced as far as trying to do everything," Wilbekin said. "He can shoot, get in the lane. I think he's probably the best player we've played this year.

"Slowing him down is probably the most important thing we have to do. He's the start to their offense, and he's the end of their offense. They give it to him in transition and see if he can make a play, and the end of the shot clock they get it to him again and let him drive or isolate him up top. It's really important to slow him down."

All season, it seems, games have come down to Wilbekin stopping somebody. Missouri's Phil Pressey, for instance. Texas A&M's Elston Turner. Minnesota's Andre Hollins. FGCU's Brett Comer. And so on.

Burke is a more explosive player than them all. Ask Kansas, which shut him out during the first half of the South Region semifinal. In the second and in OT, Burke had 23 points, and by the end, the Kansas players looked as if they had been hit in the face with a shovel.

Even Saturday afternoon, most of the conversation around Burke was just how far his shot was. Thirty feet? Thirty-five?

"It was deeper than I thought," Burke said. "It was crazy."

Crazy covers it. For Wilbekin, and for the rest of the Gators, that sums up the job. They have to shut down crazy. It's a handful.

"From an offensive standpoint, they may be the best in the country," Donovan said. "Burke is just terrific.

"I think, when it comes to Scottie, yes, he does a great job getting on the screens. He works hard. He's very committed to defense. He gives you a great effort. … But I also think our frontcourt players, Patric (Young) and Erik (Murphy) and Will Yeguete, those players really help Scottie do his job. If we don't have enough help built in around Burke, it makes it very, very difficult for any defensive player to handle a guy like that. We've got to make sure we give him that built-in help" today.

That won't be easy, either. Michigan also has Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. There are plenty of options facing the Gators.

In some ways, that makes Burke even more dangerous. He can spend long stretches of time throwing to this teammate and that one. But when the game is on the line, Burke can take over and make the game his own best-of compilation.

"When you're dealing with him, it's a long process," Donovan said. "You can do a great job on him for 10 minutes, a great job for 25 minutes. He has the ability to just explode at any time. He's got that kind of ability where if you rest a little bit or think he's not going to do something, that's exactly when he creates great plays for himself and his team."

For Burke, show horse, that will be the approach to today's game. If he can find enough daylight, he might just shoot his team into the Final Four.

For Wilbekin, workhorse, the job is to make the day a little more difficult. No one is saying he has to shut down Burke. He just has to make a difference.

Quietly, where the blue-collar workers of college basketball reside, Wilbekin has usually done that this season.

This time, for the player, and for his program, it's going to be tougher.

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