Scottie Wilbekin gets his act together

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Florida trailed Kentucky by seven points in Rupp Arena midway through the second half when Scottie Wilbekin grabbed his hammer and chisel and began chipping away at the Wildcats' lead. To Kentucky, Wilbekin became the unpredictable director of a game called "Scottie Says." 

Every time he feinted, the Wildcats flinched and fouled.

Patric Young, Casey Prather and Michael Frazier II all participated in the Gators' rally, too. But Wilbekin -- 9-for-10 from the charity stripe in the final 8:14 of Florida's 69-59 win on Feb. 15 -- orchestrated that coup in Lexington.

"He's being a leader out there," Young said after the game.

The Gators would ascend to No. 1 in the country shortly after and are 17-0 in the SEC heading into Saturday's rematch with the Wildcats in Gainesville.

Wilbekin nearly squandered the chance to be a part of the Gators' success this season. Last summer, the senior point guard was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. It was the second time Wilbekin had been suspended in less than a year.

Wilbekin missed Florida's first five games before being reinstated by Billy Donovan, who brokered a deal with the Gainesville native.

If Wilbekin wanted to leave the program following his most recent rules violation, Florida's coach promised to paint the right picture about his departure. He'd tell those interested that Wilbekin just wanted a fresh start. He'd call him a good kid who just made a few mistakes.

He'd allow the occasionally troubled leader to exit his hometown in peace.

The alternative, he told Wilbekin, would involve much more than missed time. A return to the team would include a road paved with checkpoints and accountability, but also littered by the fibers of trust he'd strewn into the ditch through his carelessness.

"I said, 'Listen, Scottie, right now, this is not who we are here at Florida, this is not what we're going to do,'" Donovan said. "'And you know what? If you do not want to deal with the suspension and being suspended games and you would like to go somewhere else and just sit out a year and go play, I'm OK with that. I'm not looking to do anything to hurt you as a person. But we've now gone through this several times with you, and you've made some poor choices and poor decisions, and what we're doing right now is not working.'"

As he considered his future, Wilbekin called his father, Svend Wilbekin. The pastor and former coach knows the senior point guard as well as anyone. He instructed him. He taught him. He raised him.

He refused to guide him.

Not this time, he told his son. After Wilbekin informed his father that he'd been suspended again -- Wilbekin missed three games last season, too -- Svend made the difficult decision to let his son decipher the dilemma on his own.

He had to.

Wilbekin's family would always support him, Svend reminded him.

But Svend also warned his son that if he decided to transfer, Wilbekin would have to call someone else if he needed a reference or wanted help contacting other college coaches. Svend wouldn't tell him what to do, either. This was his mess to clean.

Wilbekin's parents believed they had to show their son that his mistakes could place him in a pit so deep that basketball would never be enough to rescue him.

"We were very disappointed, and I let him know very clearly how disappointed I was in him, and I told him that he was going to have to figure this out for himself and to figure out who he was going to be," Sven said. "It was difficult for all of us. I think he did a lot of soul-searching. We were not going to make [decisions] for him. I told him it was his decision, but I told him I was not going to help him with the process. I was not going to call coaches for him. I wasn't going to take him on visits. If he wanted to do this, he was going to have to do this by himself."

Wilbekin realized it, too.

That's when the sadness set in.

Even though he decided to stay at Florida, his supporters had stepped back -- not to harm him, but to give him a chance to fix his life. They'd cheer for him as he attempted to rebuild, but he knew he was on a solo journey.

"It was horrible, I felt awful," Wilbekin said. "It was honestly the lowest point of my career, and when you're at a low point like that, you really find out who's in your corner. I felt bad for my family and my teammates."

For a lengthy term, he couldn't practice or work out with his teammates. He'd upset his father and his coach. And there was no promise of playing time, especially with All-American prep point guard Kasey Hill entering the mix.

That period of isolation, he told his teammates, helped him understand the gravity of his errors.

"He told us that it was kind of difficult for him because he was away from us," said Will Yeguete, Wilbekin's teammate and longtime friend. "Being patient wasn't that easy for him."

Everything had come so quickly to Wilbekin.

He was a young star on his father's team at The Rock School in Gainesville. He was so advanced, on the court and in the classroom, he graduated high school in three years and commenced his collegiate career when he was 17 years old.

In his first season, he was a reserve on a Florida team that reached the first of three consecutive Elite Eights. That early success, Donovan said, didn't help him mature.

"He's not a bad kid," Donovan said. "I think he was a very immature kid that probably went to college a year early and didn't take care of his responsibilities and do the things he needed to do on a consistent basis."

Yet, Wilbekin didn't push the red "easy" button on his career and leave the program. He could have. But he wanted to change and prove that his coaches, parents and teammates could trust him again.

And that attitude preceded a comeback that has positioned Florida to secure a coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Once he was reinstated, Wilbekin worked to regain the respect of his teammates. He talked to the younger Gators about the errors he'd made. And he showed Donovan that he finally recognized the severity of his past actions and the responsibility he has now.

"The life lessons he learned by sticking through this and doing what's required of him are invaluable," Svend said.

His son's confrontation of his own deficiencies turned into a process of growth that helped Florida retain its leader. And it provided the necessary evidence to both Donovan and Wilbekin's teammates that he was serious about change.

"I think it says a lot about him that deep down inside he cared enough about our program, he cared enough about his teammates and he cared enough about us as coaches that he said, 'You know something, this is not who I want to be,'" Donovan said. "The easy thing would have been to say, 'I'm just going to move on.'"

Added Yeguete: "He's matured a lot. He's more vocal now, more consistent on and off the court."

Back in Lexington, minutes after his team had just broken the hearts of Big Blue Nation, Wilbekin smiled as he walked toward the visitors locker room. The Gators hadn't lost in months. And even then, they appeared to possess the tools of a national championship team.

Wilbekin's mistakes nearly cost him this experience, one that could end atop a podium in Arlington, Texas.

"It's a part of my past, but I think I'm a different person because of it," he said, "so in a way, that's a part of me that's no longer there."

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