In four years at Florida, Scottie Wilbekin may have had his bumps in the road, but the Gators point guard was part of teams that reached three Elite Eights, and this past season made it to the Final Four after running the table in the SEC.
The 2014 SEC Player of the Year is hoping his success in college translates to the next level. As he tries to find a spot on a roster, will his coach, Billy Donovan, find a spot on an NBA sideline?
That’s been a consistent storyline this offseason as Donovan, along with several other college coaches, have been targeted for NBA vacancies. The Cleveland Cavaliers pushed for hard for UConn’s Kevin Ollie, were in “deep talks” with Kentucky’s John Calipari and reached out to Donovan in recent months.
Despite the rumors, and Donovan’s refusal to guarantee his future at the University of Florida, Wilbekin believes Donovan won’t leave Gainesville. The former Gator appeared on The Jim Rome Show on Friday to discuss the topic.
“I could definitely see him being a coach [in the NBA], but I don’t think he’ll leave just because I know how much he loves Florida and Gainesville,” Wilbekin said. “It’s such a great atmosphere in Gainesville that I can’t see him leaving.”
In 2007, Donovan briefly left Florida for the Orlando Magic. In the past week, reports stated that the Cavaliers had offered Calipari a seven-year, $60 million deal while other reported that the proposed offer was longer and worth more money. Not saying that would have been the same deal Donovan would have received, but it’s clear that NBA teams will be willing to do what it takes to try and uproot coaches from college campuses.
In March, Donovan signed an extension with the university through 2019.
The UConn guard tandem of Napier and Ryan Boatright have hounded opposing back courts in the NCAA tournament and the national semifinal was no different as Wilbekin was held to four points off 2-of-9 shooting with one assist and three turnovers.
But Wilbekin’s resume speaks for itself. He’s reached the Elite 8 in every season he’s been at Gainesville and now a Final Four while earning conference play of the year honors. Despite not playing well on Saturday, he was the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player.
Ulis is not viewed as a one-and-done type recruit for John Calipari, so only time will tell if the McDonald’s All American can generate that kind of success in his career in Lexington.
Scottie Wilbekin finished with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot down the stretch, as the South’s top seed, Florida, knocked off No. 9 seed Pitt, 61-45, to become the first team officially in the Sweet 16.
The Gators will take on the winner of tomorrow night’s game between No. 4 UCLA and No. 12 Stephen F. Austin.
If you were looking for a blueprint for what makes Florida so dangerous, you got it on Saturday. The Gators were downright menacing defensively, particularly at the start of the first half. Pitt shot just 37.1% from the floor, scored all of 45 points and hit 4-for-17 from beyond the arc on a night where the Gators committed just seven fouls the entire game.
Playing stifling defense without committing fouls is not an easy thing to do.
On the other side of the floor, the Gators struggled a bit early on, but they finally got into a rhythm in the second half. Florida committed six turnovers in the game and didn’t commit one in the second half until they dribbled out the shot clock up 16 on their final possession of the game. And as has been the case all season long, the difference-maker down the stretch was Wilbekin, who hit a series of ridiculously tough runners to keep the Panthers at bay. There may not be a player in the country that is as good as Wilbekin with the ball in his hands in crunch time, and I have the feeling that, at some point in the later rounds, that’s going to save the Gators.
But here’s what’s scary: think about what Florida can be if they start hitting their jump shots. On Saturday, the Gators were just 5-for-20 from beyond the arc. On Thursday, they shot just 3-for-12 from deep.
It’s not like they don’t have shooters. Michael Frazier II is as good as anyone in the country. Wilbekin can hit threes. Dorian Finney-Smith is streaky, but he can hit four or five in a given night when he gets it rolling.
Florida is as good as anyone in the country when their shots aren’t dropping.
When they are, they’re near-unbeatable.
As an aside, this is the fourth straight season that the Gators have made the Sweet 16. Patrick Young, Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather have all reached the Sweet 16 in every year they’re been in college. They’ve actually reached three Elite 8s as well, but they’ve never made the Final Four.
No. 1 Florida will get deeper in the backcourt Saturday when they host LSU, as it was reported that freshman point guard Kasey Hill has been cleared to return to game action. The Gators have played their last three games without Hill, who was forced to sit out due to a groin injury.
Head coach Billy Donovan noted in his meeting with the media on Friday that Hill hasn’t displayed any “limping or anything that I can notice where he looks hampered or bothered” during preparations for Saturday’s matchup. Florida’s won 20 consecutive games since losing at UConn on a Shabazz Napier jumper as time expired on December 2, and continuing their current run would put the Gators in a good position when it comes to earning the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Hill’s averaging 5.6 points and 3.1 assists per game for Florida, and his return should help starter Scottie Wilbekin as Florida prepares for a run at the program’s third national title. Wilbekin’s averaging 34.0 minutes per game on the season, so he’s clearly used to logging a lot of minutes. But in the three games Florida played without Hill, Wilbekin averaged 37 minutes per game and played 38 minutes in wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
If Hill’s effective once back in the rotation, maybe Florida can get Wilbekin a couple more minutes of rest ahead of tournament play. And with Hill and Wilbekin being Florida’s only true point guard options, being at full strength at the position is important if the Gators are to win a national title.
In today’s Roundtable, we will each make a pick as to who is the most important player in the National Title race.
Rob Dauster: This pick is easy: Keith Appling.
I’ve been saying it all season long. If Michigan State can get healthy, they’re going to enter the NCAA tournament as one of, if not the favorite to win the national title. Gary Harris is over the ankle issues tht plagued him earlier in the season. Adreian Payne’s foot has gotten better. Travis Trice and Matt Costello have gotten past what ails them. Even Branden Dawson is on the verge of returning from his broken hand.
The one guy that Tom Izzo is waiting on is Appling. He injured his wrist in a hard fall back in December against North Carolina, and it hasn’t been right since then. That was two and a half months ago. He even sat out three games at one point. So the question is: will Appling ever get healthy? Will he ever be the guy that looked like an All-American back in November? Because when he plays that way, it makes the Spartans that much better. He was their closer, their facilitator, finally living up to the billing he’s had since he came out of high school.
If he can get back there, the Spartans will have a great shot to cut down the nets in North Texas. If he can’t, well, they’re still going to be a contender, but as we have seen all season long, they won’t be the same team.
Raphielle Johnson: No. 5 Kansas has steadily emerged as one of the favorites to win the national title, with the growth of freshmen Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden and Andrew Wiggins being one reason why. But if the Jayhawks are to win a national title there’s another, more experienced player who holds the keys. That would be point guard Naadir Tharpe, who’s currently averaging 9.0 points and 5.1 assists per game. Back in November more than a few folks (myself included) questioned whether or not the Jayhawks would be better off with freshman Frank Mason at the point, especially when considering how he played down in the Bahamas. But as the season’s progressed it’s clear that Tharpe is the player best suited to run the show.
When Tharpe plays well he’s both distributing the basketball and scoring in an efficient manner, which makes the Jayhawks an even tougher team to defend. And in many of Kansas’ six losses Tharpe hasn’t played at the level he’s displayed for most of the season. In those games he’s averaged 6.0 points and 4.8 assists per game, shooting 37.2% from the field with his performance at Kansas State (13 points, ten assists) being the best of the bunch. Kansas has the talent needed to make a deep run, but they can’t win six straight if Tharpe isn’t at his best.
Scott Phillips: For me, it has to be Duke’s Jabari Parker. Doug McDermott is the Player of the Year, but does anybody actually believe Creighton has a chance to win a title? Duke does have a chance at a title and a lot of that will have to do with the play of Parker.
The focus for many will obviously be on Jabari’s offensive capabilities — and whether he can consistently score at a high level over a potential six-game stretch — but what about on the defensive end of things? Parker has to be able to score and rebound during the tournament while also having to face some of the best interior players in college basketball as a defender.
Is Parker up to the challenge? That remains to be seen, but as a lifelong Chicagoan, I watched Parker and Simeon win four consecutive Class 4A state championships in Illinois and you just didn’t bet against that dude when it came time for tournament play.
Obviously, the stakes, the level of play and the overall talent is much higher at the collegiate level, but Parker is a proven winner and will be a huge factor if Duke can make a Final Four run.
Terrence Payne: The former No. 1 team in the nation stumbled with back-to-back losses to Boston College and Duke last week. In those defeats, Tyler Ennis shot a combined 8-for-27 from the field. And while he still protected the ball — 12 assists to four turnovers — Duke was able to limit his effectiveness on the offensive end in the Blue Devils’ 66-60 win on Saturday.
What’s interesting about those pair of losses is that Syracuse had opportunities to win, and remain unbeaten. BC took Cuse to overtime, before pulling off the three-point upset win. The odds weren’t in the Orange’s favor with 10 seconds to go against Duke, but it was still only a one-possession game before Jim Boeheim became an Internet meme with his first career ejection.
Syracuse has gotten itself into a lot of close calls this season, and Ennis has been a key reason why the Orange have been able to prevail in many of those outcomes. Obviously the buzzer-beater against Pitt stands out, but it’s more so his decision-making and his poise down the stretch with the game in the balance. Entering that game against Pitt two weeks ago, Ennis had yet to commit a turnover in the last five minutes of a game.
Though, Ennis struggled from the field in the late stages against BC, typically a time where he flourishes. It was likely just a bump in the road in an otherwise impressive freshman campaign. A season which could end in Arlington for the Orange, if Ennis continues to thrive under pressure.
Matt Giles: Scottie Wilbekin is the reason why Florida’s offense is ranked fifteenth nationally. The junior guard, who is also arguably the team’s best on-ball defender, is no scoring slouch – 38 percent from beyond the arc – and his ability to create for the other Gators makes the team a favorite to reach the first weekend of April. Casey Prather can convert off the bounce, but the rest of the squad requires help to boost their scoring average.
The majority of Florida’s offense, when not in transition, is spent either spotting up or using pick and rolls, and Wilbekin is skilled at simultaneously understanding defensive spacing and how to best position his teammates to score. Nearly a quarter of UF’s offensive possessions are jumpers, and of those, 79 percent come from three, so Wilbekin’s passing acumen – per Hoop-Math.com, only 35 other teams are more dependent on an assist for a three point attempt than Billy Donovan’s squad – is crucial if Florida is to remain offensively efficient and avoid lulls, like during the second half against Vanderbilt.
Michael Frazier II, Patric Young, and Dorian Finney-Smith – three Gators whose percentage of shots taken is more than 20 percent – all are talented on offense, but without their point guard to position them in a perfect scoring opportunity, Florida likely wouldn’t be mentioned in any 2014 national title conversation.
Second-half adjustments result in No. 3 Florida’s 17th straight win
For much of the first half of Saturday’s game between No. 3 Florida and No. 14 Kentucky the Wildcats held the lead, with Julius Randle scoring ten points and Kentucky shooting 50% from the field. The Wildcats may have led by just three points at the half but it was clear that Billy Donovan would need to make adjustments on the defensive end while getting more efficient offense from his team.
Defensively the Gators began double-teaming the post on the catch, with a second big man being the one shifting over in most instances. As a result Randle’s looks at the basket became limited, as he attempted just two shots in the second half with all three of his points coming at the foul line. And without that ability to score points in the post much of the offense fell on the shoulders of Andrew Harrison and James Young, who combined to score 22 of Kentucky’s 28 second half points.
But with the absence of offensive balance Kentucky was less effective offensively, and this gave Florida the edge it needed to take control of the game. Wilbekin, Young and Casey Prather combined to score 38 of Florida’s 41 second-half points, with Wilbekin scoring 18 of his 23 points in the game’s final 20 minutes. The senior point guard was excellent in running the show for Florida, making sound decisions whether it involved how to properly use ball screens or making sure the ball kept moving offensively.
As for Prather (24 points, with some key transition baskets getting him going) and Young (ten points) they proved to be too much for Kentucky’s young front court, and as a team Florida outscored Kentucky 34-22 in the paint. In the second half Florida shot 60% from the field and 15-for-17 from the foul line, scoring 1.5 points per possession. The Gators got the job done on both ends of the floor, and as a result they’re now three games ahead of the pack in the SEC.
That’s fine, and winning an SEC title is a goal for Florida. But if anything can be gleaned from their second half performance it’s that the Gators should be considered one of the favorites to win the national title. Syracuse remains undefeated, as does Wichita State, and there are other teams that have a case as well. But given the experience and talent of Donovan’s rotation, there’s little doubt that Florida will be in that discussion.