Scottie Wilbekin, Michael Frazier Lead Florida over UCLA and into Elite 8

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Scottie Wilbekin, Michael Frazier Lead Florida over UCLA and into Elite 8
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Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin receives the bulk of the attention from opposing defenses and the media.

But in Thursday's 79-68 win over UCLA in the Sweet 16, it was another Florida guard, Michael Frazier II, who ignited the Gators' offense early and late—with Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, filling in all the necessary gaps in between.

Throw in the usual stingy Florida defense, and it's obvious not only why UCLA fell, but also why the Gators are the top-ranked team in the nation and the odds-on favorites to win it all.

If Frazier shoots the ball the rest of the tournament like he did against the Bruins, when he made five of his eight three-point attempts en route to a team-high 19 points, the Gators will be next to impossible to beat.

But in upstart Dayton, a No. 11 seed who dispatched Stanford in its Thursday Sweet 16 matchup, the Gators will be facing a team in the Elite Eight that plays a similar style. The Flyers are tenacious on defense and unselfish on offense, looking for open three-point shooters on the perimeter, much the same as the Gators (Florida had assists on 22 of its 29 made baskets versus UCLA).

Wilbekin, a senior who was suspended from the team indefinitely last summer for repeatedly violating team rules and had to work his way back into the good graces of head coach Billy Donovan and his teammates, has much to do with getting the ball into the hands of the right people at precisely the right time for Florida.

He always seems to be steady as a rock on the court these days—and Thursday was no exception.

John Bazemore/Associated Press
Florida coach Billy Donovan knows what his guards can do.

When UCLA pulled to within a point with 10 minutes left to play, Wilbekin keyed a 10-0 Florida run that restored order for the Gators. Frazier also hit a jump shot during the run, but Wilbekin hit a three-pointer and scored three the old-fashioned way on a tough drive to the basket where he drew the foul, then made the subsequent free throw.

And when UCLA inched back to within five at 68-63, it was Wilbekin who drove the lane, found himself stymied by a double-team—and somehow ended up banking in a high-arching 10-foot fadeaway over 6'10" Travis Wear. That shot seemed to be the dagger that finally eradicated UCLA's considerable resolve.

Earlier, Donovan had talked about Wilbekin's newfound maturity and what it has meant to the Florida team, telling Juliet Macur of the The New York Times:

"For me, it's been one of the greatest experiences as a coach, going through what he and I have gone through together," Donovan told Macur. "People get a chance to see him grow as a player. I got a chance to see him grow as a person."

Wilbekin's suspension last June was his second in less than a year. The first time, Donovan sat him just three games.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

But the last time, according to the Times article, Donovan actually told Wilbekin he thought it would be better for him to transfer to another school and finish his college career elsewhere. When Wilbekin, a native of Gainesville, Fla., where the University of Florida is located, begged to stay, Donovan told him he had to move back in with his parents and start showing up for workouts every day at 7 a.m., one hour earlier than the rest of the team.

The end result was that once Wilbekin finally did return to the team, he emerged as its undisputed leader.

Of course, Wilbekin had plenty of help against the Bruins. When he was struggling with his shot early in the game, Frazier was there to pick him up, helping the Gators seemingly stay just a couple of steps ahead of UCLA all night long.

While Wilbekin has been steady throughout the season and the NCAA tournament, Frazier entered Thursday's game mired in a bit of shooting slump. In Florida's first two tournament victories, he had shot only 3-of-13 on three-pointers.

But Donovan knew his sophomore guard could get hot. So did Frazier himself.

Frazier is the school's all-time leader in three-pointers made, and on March 4 versus South Carolina, he really put on a show. That night, he sank 11 threes (on 18 attempts) to establish a school record, leading teammate Patric Young to explain the Gators' basic offensive strategy afterward.

"For us to get a Michael Frazier open three as many times as we can, that's what we want to get," Young told the Orlando Sentinel that night.

So it's really quite simple. When Frazier is open, get him the ball. And when Frazier comes off the bench with the hot hand, the Gators are arguably unstoppable.

For one thing, when he and/or Wilbekin are hitting threes, suddenly defenses have to extend to guard them. Then they can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket, hitting each other or another teammate as the defense is forced to collapse on them.

In short, it's a double nightmare for opposing defenses.

By the end of the night against UCLA, the backcourt mates were sharing the spotlight. With 1:10 to go, Wilbekin almost single-handedly broke the Bruins' full-court press before feeding the ball upcourt. It eventually ended up in the hands of Frazier, who ran the court like a gazelle and dunked it.

It happened again shortly thereafter, with Wilbekin on the beginning end and Frazier on the finishing end with another dunk. Fittingly, it was the final basket of the game on a night when the Florida backcourt duo had the most to do with the program's 29th consecutive victory.

 

Joe Menzer has written six books, including one about college basketball entitled Four Corners, and now writes about college hoops, golf, NASCAR and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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