Back in November, Florida head coach Billy Donovan was not sure what kind of team he had.
Without Wilbekin at the controls, Florida would have had to rely on untested freshman Kasey Hill to take charge. While Hill arrived in Gainesville with plenty of accolades, he lacked big-game experience at the collegiate level.
The unofficial beginning of UF's march to the 2014 Final Four began when Wilbekin was reinstated (CBSSports.com) prior to their game against Jacksonville on November 25.
The Gators return to the national semifinals for the first time since 2007, when they won it all in back-to-back years.
This senior-strong team has only lost two games all season. Their first loss was at Wisconsin, without Wilbekin, 59-53. The second came at UConn, 65-64, when Wilbekin rolled an ankle and could not finish the game. These early season setbacks seem like a distant blip on the radar for a team that has won a school-record 30 in a row.
The key to this senior-strong team's success has been and will be Wilbekin's continued backcourt brilliance.
How has this 6'2" former role player turned into Florida's Final Four go-to guy?
Handled Suspension Responsibly
Back when Wilbekin was suspended, the outlook for the 2013-14 season was uncertain. There was no guarantee that he would return.
Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore stated:
It's not worth trying to figure out why Wilbekin has been suspended again, but if we can make one assumption, it's this: A second suspension usually comes with a longer sentence than the first, especially if it is due to the same offense.
If that is the case and Wilbekin misses a good portion of Florida's nonconference schedule, that's troublesome for head coach Billy Donovan.
Fortunately for the Gators, Wilbekin responded favorably to the conditions of his suspension. He followed everything that Donovan outlined and only missed five games.
More important than being put back on the team, Wilbekin made some noticeable improvements. ESPN's Jeff Goodman tweeted:
Heard Billy Donovan was extremely tough on Scottie Wilbekin through his suspension this past offseason. Whatever he did, its worked.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) December 18, 2013
In fact, his progress was not restricted to basketball issues. He grew up in the process.
New York Times' Juliet Macur suggested that "Billy Donovan pushed Scottie Wilbekin towards maturity."
Beyond winning games and titles, a college coach’s job should be to change his players’ lives, to help them work through problems on and off the court. The task is to master basketball, but also to look beyond basketball, though that rarely happens.
In Wilbekin’s case, Donovan did just that.
Macur quoted Donovan, who said:
For me, it’s been one of the greatest experiences as a coach going through what he and I have gone through together. People get a chance maybe to see him grow as a player. I got a chance to see him grow as a person.
This growth has transformed Wilbekin into an accountable and dependable leader who his teammates respect and look to for leadership.
Plays Defense Relentlessly
From the time that Wilbekin arrived in Gainesville, he played his way onto the court in his freshman year as a defensive stopper.
In the middle of last season, CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello described his versatility as a lock-down defender:
Wilbekin's length enables him to play passing lanes effectively, turning errant passes into easy baskets at the other end. He is also a smart defender, getting steals without reaching and fouling. He has great lateral quickness, covering ground easily, which helps him extend the man-to-man defense 94 feet on certain possessions.
Even though Wilbekin leads the Gators this year in steals (54), his defensive impact goes way beyond being a perimeter pickpocket. The on-ball pressure that he applies prevents opponents from being able to effectively initiate their offense.
Great defensive players make their teammates better defenders. Wilbekin's tenacity and determination are contagious, helping the Gators to bring their best to stop their opponents.
Runs the Show Effectively
Wilbekin has been a crafty floor leader throughout his four-year Gator career. He has always taken good care of the ball, posting at least a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio every season:
Wilbekin has turned his playmaking skill up a notch during this year's March Madness. Overall, he has handed out 18 assists and only committed 4 turnovers.
In fact, CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman pointed out how flawless he has been in this year's tournament:
Scottie Wilbekin's now gone more than 2 full #Florida games w/o committing a turnover. Not since the 9 min mark of 1st half of Pitt game— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) March 29, 2014
Even though Wilbekin's scoring has increased in the last few games, he has not stopped being the trigger man to all the good that the Gators are doing on offense.
Shoots the Ball Fearlessly
Wilbekin is a confident penetrator, getting into the lane and causing havoc for other teams.
He can get to the rim and put points on the board. Give him space, and he can pull up and nail jumpers.
Wilbekin can get creative when the Gators need a bucket. NBCSports' Rob Dauster stated:
Scottie Wilbekin is the best tough shot maker in the country. That lefty runner off the glass was just stupid.— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) March 29, 2014
Florida has plenty of offensive firepower. Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II and senior wing Casey Prather are a lethal shoot-and-slash combo. When he is in "beast mode," Patric Young owns the low-post.
But Wilbekin is "in the zone." He is averaging 19 PPG in the Gators' last three outings. Against Dayton, he scored 23 points, hitting 3-of-5 from beyond the arc and 8-of-10 free throws.
More and more, the ball is in Wilbekin's hands when Florida needs to score.
Will Florida win the 2014 NCAA Championship?
Florida has made the Selection Committee look wise for designating it the overall No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA tournament. Billy Donovan's squad has an excellent chance of winning the school's and the coach's third national title.
Scottie Wilbekin has arguably been this year's best March Madness point guard. He is also the key to the Gators' title hopes.
If he puts together two more games like he has over the last two weeks, look for Florida to cut down the nets on Monday night in Arlington.