In the second game of their season, the Florida Gators traveled to Madison, Wisc., to face the nationally ranked Badgers. The Gators, then ranked 11th in the country, lost to No. 20 Wisconsin. A few weeks later, Florida's journey to Storrs resulted in a loss to Shabazz Napier and UConn. Eight games into the season, Florida had two losses and was trying to find its identity. The losses to ranked teams — the Huskies were 12th in the nation at the time — proved to be crucial. "I think we learned a lot about ourselves," coach Billy Donovan said Thursday. "That early in the season, we're all trying to get to know our team better, to see how we respond against high level competition. You're also trying to get somewhat prepared for your league play because you know you're going to go into some difficult places to play. "So for us those two early road games at UConn, at Wisconsin, I thought they were really helpful to our team moving forward and in terms of where we needed to improve and get better." Four months later, Florida is the No. 1 team in the county and preparing for a rematch with UConn in the national semifinals. The Gators (36-2) have won 30 in a row, with the last loss Dec. 2 in Storrs. And it took a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier to lift UConn (30-8) to that victory. That loss in a hostile environment wound up igniting Florida, which beat two other ranked teams (Kansas and Memphis) before marching through the SEC portion of its schedule. "Obviously, it was a tough loss for us, losing like that at the buzzer," Donovan said. "But there's things we can look at in the game, right after that game finished, of where we needed to get better and improve. We did a much, much better job I thought going forward. "I think any game that you play where it's against that kind of competition, it only helps your team get better." Napier scored 26 points in the win over Florida and has been playing as well as any player in the country while leading UConn through its tournament run. So there will be significant pressure on senior Scottie Wilbekin, who is charged with containing Napier. Wilbekin left the Dec. 2 matchup with an injury late in the second half. Wilbekin (13.4 points) is considered a strong defensive player. But he's not looking at his rematch with Napier as a chance to avenge the earlier loss. "I always like guarding guys that are challenging to guard," Wilbekin said. "But as far as getting another crack at playing them, it's really not about that at all. I would be happy to play anybody in the Final Four, because I'm just happy to be here with an opportunity to advance. So they're a great team, they have obviously played great up until this point, so it's going to be a tough game for both of us." Wilbekin has emerged as a leader, a notion that seemed improbable last summer. The Gainesville, Fla., native was suspended by Donovan in June for violating team rules. It was his second suspension in seven months and there was thought he might transfer. Instead, he earned Donovan's trust and was back for this season. As his college career comes to an end, Wilbekin said he's not thinking of his draft prospects and instead appreciates where he is. "I didn't have a lot of hype coming in as a freshman, so I was really just having the most fun in the situation that I was at," Wilbekin said. "That's what I've continued to do for all my four years. I never really looked to the future as much as I'm just having fun in the moment right now and just enjoying playing with my teammates and the college experience."
Florida's Donovan Counting On Wilbekin To Slow Shabazz
Hartford Courant | Apr 4