NORTH TEXAS - The smile rarely leaves Scottie Wilbekin's face these days. Call it a smirk or a grin -- Gators fans may view it differently than Gators foes -- it quite often seems to be the Florida senior point guard's facial response, whether intended or not, to one of the best runs in recent college basketball history, now 30 straight wins and counting.
Yet when he was told Friday afternoon that some view him as something of a bad guy, Wilbekin seemed genuinely taken aback.
"I hope I'm one of the good guys," the hoops artist who strongly resembles Prince said about 29 hours before Florida was to face Connecticut in the opening game of today's Final Four semifinals inside AT&T Stadium. "If I have to be a bad guy, so be it. But I don't view myself as a bad guy."
He's certainly been anything but bad in this tournament, leading the Gators in scoring (16.8 ppg), steals (1.5) and minutes played (35.0).
Yet as recently as last summer, Gators coach Billy Donovan viewed him as a bad enough actor to suspend him indefinitely from the squad for a violation of team rules. He even told the graduate of The Rock high school in Gainesville, Fla., that the coach would help the player transfer if he so desired.
"The thing to start with is that I've known Scottie since he was 7, 8, 9 years old," Donovan said. "He played with my son, came to our camps; I know his family well. I presented him the opportunity to leave... [but] I really just felt he needed to restore his credibility back inside the team."
So shaken was Wilbekin he told a couple of teammates, including starting center Patric Young, "I want to stay, but I don't know if Coach is going to let me."
Donovan's penalty included Wilbekin moving back in with his parents for four months and having no contact with the team.
"It wasn't one of those things where it was a two-week suspension and he came back to our team. There were things he needed to do," Donovan explained. "It was a long suspension. But he did everything he needed to, I think, to regain the trust of the coaching staff and the players."
Those players had to first regain their footing.
"From the initial news and shock, we all had a level of disappointment," Young said. "We didn't know what was going to happen next."
This isn't to say that anyone wanted Wilbekin to vanish for good.
"There was never a point where Patric or any of the players ever came to me and said, 'We don't want him on our team. He's no good; get rid of him,'" Donovan said. "They have always loved Scottie. But I think they kind of wanted to see him be more committed to the group."
So Wilbekin grudgingly moved the eight miles from campus back to his family's home, and once more he lived by the rules of his pastor father, Svend, and mother, Katy, though he was happy to enjoy her cinnamon rolls again.
"It was tough," Scottie said Friday. "But it definitely made me stronger."
Actually, the 7 a.m. workouts he endured without the encouragement of teammates made him physically stronger. The solitude toughened him mentally. Finally, in October, more than four months after the suspension began, Donovan allowed him to practice with the team, then returned him to game action against Jacksonville on Nov. 25, the Gators' sixth game of the season. He scored 12 points and handed out seven assists in an 86-60 victory.
Afterward, Donovan said of Wilbekin's impact, "You have to have somebody out there who can shift you out of things. We probably saw five different defenses. It's hard for me to yell, 'They're in this! Run this' You have to have somebody in there to make those decisions. Scottie did a pretty good job of shifting us in and out of our offense."
He has done such a good job from that night against Jacksonville forward that he was voted the Southeastern Conference player of the year, as well as winning last week's South Regional most outstanding player, where he failed to turn the ball over once in 73 minutes of court time.
"It all starts with him," said Connecticut star Shabazz Napier, whose last-second game-winner against the Gators on Dec. 2 delivered Florida its second and last loss of the year. "You've got to know where he is at all times."
Unfortunately for the Gators on that long-ago night, Wilbekin was on a trainer's table in the Huskies' gym, his ankle covered in ice, when Napier hit the shot.
"I heard the crowd," the Florida captain said. "I knew they'd won. It was awful."
Now, 124 days later, the Gators get a change to avenge one of their two losses. Let Wisconsin top Kentucky in the second semifinal and they could avenge their only other defeat in Monday's title game.
But win or lose, Young has no uncertainty regarding the biggest reason Florida has returned to the Final Four for the first time since their back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
Referring to Wilbekin, he said, "There's no way we're here without him."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com