FROM SECTION 107, Row J at FedExForum in Memphis, Katy and Svend Wilbekin scanned the court. Their eldest son stood high up on a ladder, scissors in one hand, net worthy splashed across the front of his gray T-shirt. Katy knew that the piece Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin clipped would end up with the burgeoning collection of nylon inside her brown leather handbag. After the Gators' 62--52 defeat of Dayton in the South Regional final last Saturday, she almost has enough to weave a complete net.
There's a piece from the regular-season SEC title, another from the SEC tournament championship (he was MVP of both) and yet another from the NCAA tournament's opening weekend. The repository for these net gains is fitting, because Wilbekin's play is like a small purse: clutch. The regional's Most Outstanding Player has averaged a team-high 16.7 points, along with 3.0 assists, and committed just two turnovers in four tournament games, leading the Gators to their 30th straight win and first Final Four since 2007. "I'm so thankful Scottie had the chance to put in the hard work to redeem himself," Katy says, "but people who say he changed have it wrong. Really, he went back to being the person he was before."
That is, before the two suspensions that nearly ended Wilbekin's career with the Gators.
A Gainesville native, Wilbekin lived in the same subdivision as former Florida assistant Rob Lanier, who first noticed Wilbekin while scouting eventual Kentucky one-and-done point guard Brandon Knight. The Gators needed a floor general, and Wilbekin offered to graduate from The Rock School a year early and enroll at 17. "In basketball, that's unheard of," Lanier says. Wilbekin immediately earned a role as a defensive specialist. "He wasn't an elite prospect by any means," says former assistant Richard Pitino, now the Minnesota coach, "but he had all the intangibles. He did all the right things on the court and was tough. I'm going to be honest: SEC player of the year? I didn't see that one coming."
Certainly not last summer, when coach Billy Donovan suspended Wilbekin a second time for violating team rules. Donovan gave Wilbekin his blessing to transfer and said he could return only under two conditions: He would work out by himself each morning, and he would move back in with his parents.
On Day One of his exile, Wilbekin arrived at the weight room at 5:30 a.m. Strength coach Preston Greene expected the usual grumbling. "He was always the joker," Greene says. "I wouldn't say he had a bad attitude, but he didn't embrace [the work]." But that morning and nearly every one after it, Wilbekin showed up without complaint. Greene wondered at first if it was an act, but Wilbekin's commitment never wavered. And he grew to like living at home again. He ordered up Katy's signature meat-and-potatoes dishes regularly and played video games with his two younger brothers, Mitchell and Andrew.
Wilbekin returned to the lineup on Nov. 25 after missing five games, and the Gators have lost just twice since (once to their national semifinal opponent, UConn, 65--64). After the win over Dayton—after Wilbekin's latest halftime buzzer beater, after his 108th straight minute without a turnover, after his game-high 23 points—Wilbekin helped douse Donovan with a bucket of ice water. Then they headed off to the postgame dais, the coach who had wanted his point guard to become someone else's headache, the senior who had turned himself around and helped his classmates turn three consecutive Elite Eight losses into, at last, a Final Four berth.
After the game, Wilbekin walked with a piece of net tucked into his hat. "I better give it to my mom before I lose it," he said, hoping she had room in her bag for one more after that.
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
STRING MUSIC Wilbekin has been pitch perfect since his second suspension, leading, nailing clutch shots and protecting the ball.