The one player the Florida Gators need most on this national-championship run is the one player they wanted least. Scottie Wilbekin was the problem child, selfish, immature, rules-breaking and corrosive as battery acid. Coach Billy Donovan was fed up. Done. Over him.
“I told him he needed to transfer, move on and get a fresh start somewhere else,” Donovan revealed here Saturday after a thorough 61-45 pounding of Pittsburgh that reestablished UF’s credentials as the NCAA Tournament’s overall No. 1 seed. The coach once looked at Wilbekin and saw only wasted talent, not someone capable of turning himself around. “I told him. ‘I don’t believe you can do it or will do it.’ ”
Turns out he could, and did, and it is the biggest reason why Florida is headed to the Sweet 16 in Memphis, with as good a chance as any men’s college basketball team in the country to be up on a ladder cutting down pieces of net when March Madness crescendos in a couple of weeks.
If there is a better redemption story in all of American sports right now than Wilbekin, I would entertain nominees.
The Gators’ problem has become the solution.
Wilbekin was Southeastern Conference Player of the Year this season. On Saturday, the point guard’s game-high 21 points led Florida’s second tournament victory — a resounding one after an unimpressive Thursday coast past Albany. Pitt had no answers for him in the second half when the game was close, until it wasn’t. Wilbekin took stick to piñata.
One of the neat stories about these Gators, beyond the 34-2 record, the 28 consecutive wins and the top ranking, is that four seniors start, all but unheard of in the one-and-done NCAA. The astonishment is that Wilbekin, of all people, has become foremost among those elder statesmen setting examples for others.
“Just trying to get better in little areas. Trying to become a better leader,” Wilbekin said in describing his metamorphosis. “Be more connected with my teammates and head coach.”
He was suspended during his junior season and again the summer before his senior year, forced to spend months away from his teammates.
“It was horrible,” he said.
That’s when Donovan played tough love with his time-to-move-on ultimatum.
“It’s been one of the great experiences for me as a coach to go through,” Donovan said. “It was a struggle and a battle. Scottie needed to regain credibility within our team. He lost his credibility. He did not have an awareness. He is a kid who learned valuable lessons.”
On Saturday, Wilbekin was what he seldom was before this season:
There when the Gators needed him.
Someone to count on.
His three-point basket opened Florida’s scoring against Pitt. His three-pointer at the buzzer turned a two-point lead into five at halftime. He scored 11 of Florida’s 13 points in a second-half burst that let the partisan Gators crowd half-exhale, half-erupt in the downtown arena the NBA’s Magic calls home.
It is notable here that Wilbekin this season also made the All-SEC defensive first team, because Florida wins for so many reasons, including terrific defense, size and senior experience. Center Patric Young, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, is built like LeBron James.
Understand that Pitt considered itself a big, tough team before the Gators caused Panthers coach Jamie Dixon to reevaluate. Pitt had steamrolled Colorado by 29 points in its NCAA opener and came into Saturday’s game a trendy upset pick.
Instead, at times it seemed like men against boys.
“The most physical team we’ve played all year long by far,” Dixon said of the Gators. “They beat us on the glass, and beat us to loose balls. There’s a reason why they’re No. 1. They just banged us around all day long. We tried to go to the basket and just bounced off of them. They’re big across the board, and they use it.”
The Gators did not look themselves in Thursday’s perfunctory 12-point win over 16th-seeded Albany, earning a challenge from Donovan. Several high seeds including No. 3 Duke already have lost in this year’s tournament.
“I didn’t feel like we played to our identity,” the coach said. “I saw things inside our team I didn’t like. There was this frustration.
“That’s not who we’ve been.”
On Saturday, the Gators were who they’ve been again. Punishing. Dictating.
If they can be who they were Saturday four more times — led by problem-turned-solution Wilbekin — Florida will have a third national championship to add to the ones Donovan claimed back-to-back in 2006-07.
As an aside, Saturday’s win happened to be the 449th of Donovan’s 18-year Gators career, moving him to second all-time in SEC history behind only the legendary Adolph Rupp.
Yet the arena placard on the dais for his official postgame news conference Saturday misspelled his last name as “Donavan” before it was hastily removed. (Dear NCAA: You manage to get “Krzyzewski” right. How tough can Donovan be?)
The winning coach took the minor indignity with good humor, although he couldn’t resist a small parting shot aimed at an NCAA official.
“Yeah,” he said, “we’re going to get my name corrected, right?”