ATLANTA — As the league's first 18-0 regular-season champion, Florida expected Friday's opponent in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to surrender without a fight. "I think we were ready for Missouri to lay down," big man Patric Young said.
Instead, Missouri competed. Overcoming poor shooting (one of 13 from three-point range) with hustle and grit, the Tigers trailed by only six points with less than 10 minutes left.
Then Scottie Wilbekin — who else? — struck again. He stole an inbounds pass and saved the ball to teammate Will Yeguete, whose return pass a moment later set up a Wilbekin three-pointer from the corner. That changed the game's tone, perhaps fatally wounded Missouri's NCAA Tournament chances and reminded fans why watching Wilbekin is a treat.
"That's why he's the Player of the Year in the SEC," teammate Michael Frazier II said after Florida's 72-49 victory. "The guy is a fierce competitor. He's our leader. He knows we expect that every night."
Only last Saturday, Kentucky saw first-hand Wilbekin's knack for coming through when it matters most. After UK's 15-0 second-half run seemed to unnerve the Gators, Wilbekin steadied his team with a three-pointer from the wing.
"If they are going to give me space, I'm going to take it," he said of the three-pointer against Kentucky that showed his no-fear basketball philosophy. But Wilbekin was at a loss to explain why he so often figures prominently in big-play moments.
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe it's just because the ball's in my hands because I'm the point guard. I try to play hard on every possession and not leave anything on the court."
When asked in Florida's business-as-usual locker room if he expected such a celebrated senior season, Wilbekin said, "No. Not at all. I really didn't think about it too much. I just wanted to get better each year. Whether it be threes or penetration or using ball screens, just try to get better at something."
Until this season, Wilbekin had been most noted for completing high school in Gainesville after three years and joining the Florida team as a 17-year-old freshman.
"Because I wanted to come to Florida," he said of the jump. "If I didn't come, they would have gotten another point guard."
The Gators wanted other point guards. Wilbekin said to a Kentucky-based sportswriter, "They tried to get your boy," meaning former UK player and Florida native Brandon Knight.
As Florida pursued other point guards, Wilbekin considered such programs as Florida State, Maryland, Virginia, Nevada. Then he playfully poked at a writer and said, "Wichita State. It's crazy."
Wilbekin had to serve two suspensions before evolving into the SEC's Player of the Year. Last season, he sat out three games.
Then last June, Florida Coach Billy Donovan suspended Wilbekin again and issued a Pitino-ish ultimatum/challenge: You're better off transferring because to serve the suspension will be too unpleasant.
Wilbekin chose to stay, which meant moving home and disassociating himself from the Florida team except for 7 a.m. workouts with a strength coach and/or managers. Donovan re-instated Wilbekin in mid-October, but he still had to sit out five games.
Safe to say, if Wilbekin had transferred, Florida would not be Florida.
"Only God can tell you that," Young said of how a no-Wilbekin scenario would have played out. "It'd be a lot different.
"If we had him from the beginning of the season, we'd be undefeated right now."
When a reporter asked Willie Cauley-Stein to explain the "tweak" made on Kentucky's approach, he said, "Tweak? What are you talking about? What tweak?"
The reporter replied that UK Coach John Calipari had mentioned a "tweak."
"When did he say that?" Cauley-Stein said.
Told Calipari mentioned it Monday night on the weekly radio show, Cauley-Stein said, "I didn't watch that."
Shredding the past
To symbolize the fresh start that is the post-season, Calipari and the players took turns shredding DVDs of the UK games this regular season.
"You can't go back and fix anything," Cauley-Stein said of the shredding.
Julius Randle said the shredding "made a lot of sense, Time to move on. It's a new season."
Many coaches, surely Calipari, would applaud the Wilbekin-Yeguete play against Missouri.
After receiving the save from Wilbekin, Yeguete had a chance to attack the basket. But instead, he paused, then passed to an open Wilbekin in the left corner. Wilbekin made the shot.
"He was hot and I think he deserved that shot because he made a good hustle play," Yeguete said of passing rather than trying to score.
Wilbekin recalled it differently. "I was hollering at him," he said. "I wanted it back."
Kentucky had 15 assists and nine turnovers, which snapped an eight-game streak of not having more assists than turnovers. . . . Andrew Harrison had a career-high eight assists.
■ A stomach illness sidelined Marcus Lee. He is listed as day to day, UK said.
■ Former UK All-American Kevin Grevey is at the SEC Tournament. He will work as the analyst for Westwood One radio's call of the semifinals and finals.