Scottie Wilbekin was an integral part of the Cairns Taipans success this year. Narrowly losing to the New Zealand Breakers in the championship game, he averaged 15 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists and guided the team to a #1 spot during the regular season. He alsobecame the first player in club history to win both team MVP and Best Defensive Player.
Now with the NBL season now behind us Aussie hoop heads turn their attention to all of the hoopla surrounding March Madness, crazy upsets and perfect brackets… With that it’s easy to forget how much pressure and attention is placed on players only 18-22 years old.
Scottie Wilbekin understands this all too well. Before moving to Far North Queensland Wilbekin was a star for the high-profile Florida Gators programme who reached the Elite 8 every year he was there.
The wily guard was also a senior point guard for the 2014 Florida team that reached the Final Four as the No. 1 overall seed. That season Wilbekin upped his scoring to 16.8 points per game during the 2014 NCAA tournament and led the Gators to the NCAA Final Four in March with a season-high 23 points (3-of-5 threes) over Dayton.
Recently Wilbekin shared memories on how hectic it is leading up to the semifinal game.
“We had a couple of practices at home, and then about four days before the game we head out and have media practices, closed practices and lots of interviews in the days before the game,” Wilbekin said.
How do you avoid being consumed by all the media and fans before you even step on the floor? The answer is simple, but not easy.
“Try just to not focus on it,” Wilbekin said. “Focus on the team that you’re playing and who you’ll be guarding and what you need to do to be successful, and block out all the distractions.”
When Wilbekin and his teammates weren’t studying their opponent, UConn, or dealing with throngs of media members, they were battling it out on Xbox One. While this year’s Wisconsin team enjoys playing FIFA, last year’s Florida team stuck with the popular NBA2K series.
Once game time arrived, Florida and UConn entered AT&T Stadium in front of nearly 80,000 fans, not to mention the world’s largest HD video display.
“It felt great to know that you were experiencing something that few people are lucky enough to experience,” Wilbekin said. “But I just try to have as much fun as I could and soak it in.
“Once the game started it pretty much felt normal. There’s so many things that I had to think about within the game that I didn’t have time to think about anything else.”
The Florida backcourt struggled with shooting. Wilbekin and guard Michael Frazier finished a combined 3-of-12 from the field, including 1-of-6 from 3-point range.
Some players and coaches have said it is difficult to adjust to shooting in a large stadium like AT&T, although both winning teams in the 2014 semifinal games shot at least 50 percent. Wilbekin didn’t blame the venue for an off night.
“For the most part I think it’s the same once you take a couple shots,” Wilbekin said. “People can blame bad shooting nights on the bigger venue, but I think it’s just like any other game. Sometimes you miss, sometimes you can’t miss.”
Following a 63-53 loss to the eventual national champion Huskies, the Gators stayed Saturday night and left the following day. Wilbekin did not watch any of the championship game.
“I didn’t. I was busy hanging out with friends and family after a long season,” Wilbekin said. “It felt good to take a breath.”
Since leaving Cairns at the end of their season Scottie has been in Greece, playing for prestigious AEK Athens of the Greek A1 Basketball League, but the ultimate goal is to stand among the best players in the world.
“It’s a dream of mine and I do hope to play (in the NBA) one day, but right now I just thank God that I am blessed enough to be playing basketball for a living.”