Months before starting his finest season as a college player, Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin sat in the office of basketball coach Billy Donovan wondering if he had a future at the school.
Transfer talk surfaced, courtesy of Donovan. The topic rocked Wilbekin, who made himself expendable by earning his second suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules during his college career.
A hometown product from a private high school in Gainesville, Fla., the senior-to-be wanted no part of a fresh start at a different university, away from the other members of Florida’s four-senior starting lineup that has carried the Gators (36-2) into Saturday’s game against Connecticut (30-8) in the Final Four at AT&T Stadium.
“It was a shock. It shocked me and put me in a place that I needed to be in order to get better and focus on the right things,” Wilbekin said of last summer’s talk with Donovan that convinced him to select option No. 2 presented by the Gators’ coach: a list of punishments that would allow him to return to school, but with a unique twist.
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Wilbekin would have to move back in with his parents, Svend and Katy, for his final season in addition to taking part in extra conditioning workouts and missing an unspecified number of games to begin the 2013-14 season. Wilbekin, who wound up sitting out the Gators’ first five games, quickly accepted.
“I’m the type of person that, when a challenge is put in front of me, I go into an extra gear,” Wilbekin said. “Because I don’t like people telling me I can’t do something. When people doubt me, I like to prove them wrong. Because of my actions, things were in doubt for him.”
Donovan also had preseason concerns about the clouded availabilities of two key bench players, forwards Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker, as well as health-related issues for other Gators, including starting forward Will Yeguette (knee).
“Our team was in complete shambles and disarray when we came back to school in August,” Donovan said.
But the team has bonded, regained its health, settled its internal issues and won more games (36) than any squad in Florida history. The Gators enter Saturday’s game with a school-record 30-game winning streak. At the heart of the turnaround, say players and Donovan, has been Wilbekin, the 2014 SEC player of the year.
“I’ve always believed in him, even though he has made some choices in the past that have affected him,” center Patric Young said. “He’s only gotten better as a person and realized how fragile his career is as a basketball player with the decisions he makes. I think that helped him to work even harder and to gain back everyone’s trust. To show everyone how serious he is about the game and winning. He’s just gone out there and performed and done it.”
Gators guard Michael Frazier said: “Scottie has grown a lot since the summertime. He’s made big strides as a person and as a player.”
That was Donovan’s hope when he gave Wilbekin the opportunity to return. Wilebkin, 20, spent most mornings from June through September doing strenuous workouts for members of the Gators’ strength and conditioning staff. When team practices resumed in the fall, Wilbekin was the first to arrive and the last to leave. He learned to take responsibility for his actions and became the team’s emotional leader.
“That stuff, to me, is really what it’s about,” Donovan said. “More so than just the end result of winning.”
But winning has come hand-in-hand with the maturation process. Wilbekin’s season scoring average has jumped to 13.4 points per game, double his career mark (6.7). Long considered a top defensive player, he also leads the team in assists (3.7), steals (1.6) and minutes played (34.0). In short, Wilbekin has become the unquestioned catalyst behind Florida’s drive to its first Final Four since 2007.
Key stat: Florida is 32-0 this season when Wilbekin has started and finished games. A Nov. 12 loss at Wisconsin came during Wilbekin’s five-game suspension. During a Dec. 2 loss at UConn, Wilbekin injured his ankle and watched from the bench as the Gators absorbed a 65-64 loss on a last-second shot. Asked about the team’s flawless mark when he’s healthy and playing, Wilbekin said: “I’m aware of it. But there’s nothing I can do about those other two games.”
Instead, he plans to focus on helping the Gators achieve payback against Connecticut and, if possible, Wisconsin in Monday’s title game. For Wilbekin, it’s been an eye-opening, game-elevating journey from his summer talk with Donovan about a potential transfer to having an opportunity to claim a national championship with Donovan in Arlington.
“I couldn’t see myself playing for another coach. I couldn’t see myself playing with any other teammates,” Wilbekin said, reflecting on his decision to finish his career at Florida. “The relationships that I’ve built with these guys have been so special. It’s something I hold very dear.”
When Donovan put those relationships in jeopardy, Wilbekin dug deep and found a way to preserve them by going through what he called “the hardest thing I’ve been through in my life.”
“Looking back on it, it was all worth it,” Wilbekin said. “I’m glad ‘Coach D’ challenged me in that way. So that I could put myself in the position that I’m in now. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”