The mid-week roadie started out like any other, with me perusing Florida basketball’s schedule to see if any home games coincided with one of my rare night’s off. One pretty important game did. The Kansas Jayhawks and their freshman phenom, Andrew Wiggins, would be coming into Gainesville on a Tuesday night, one I didn’t have to work. Wiggins is projected to be a number one draft pick; I projected myself driving to Gainesville to see him play my Gators before that happened.
I hadn’t made it up to Gainesville for a football game this season a) because of my availability and b) because the product Will Muschamp and company put on the field was record-settingly bad. Watching them on television was painful enough. But with Billy Donovan fielding yet another potential national championship team, the two hour drive to Gainesville to see them, and what many have called the next LeBron, was well worth the trip.
I’ve seen plenty of future NBA stars play against the Gators in my day, including Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Jackson, Jamal Mashburn, Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston, not to mention the Gator championship teams of years past. It was time to add Wiggins to that list.
I put the call into Brotha E for some tickets. Brotha E most recently became notorious for picking a Twitter fight with Stephon Marbury but that’s a story for another time. E informed me that students had been camping out all morning for tickets. It’s as if the circus was coming to town in the form of a 6’8″ 18-year old, already the talk of college basketball and the potential future face of the NBA. When E texted me an hour later that he had the tickets in his hand, it was music to my ears. Pack my bags, momma, I’m comin’ home.
Weaving in and out of annoyingly slow snowbird traffic on Interstate-75, I made it up to the motherland in an hour-forty flat. First stop: Lillian’s Music Store, a Gainesville institution, the establishment where I spent six years of my life and first learned how to tend bar. You all have them to blame.
After a few pre-game cocktails and time reminiscing with old friends, it was off to the O’Connell Center for tip. Despite the return of Gator guards Casey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin to the lineup (these two have yet to play together), the most anticipated matchup was between the soon-to-be highly drafted Wiggins and the very possibly undrafted 6’6” Casey Prather. Prather would have his hands full.
The O’Connell Center was rocking that evening, as loud as I’ve ever heard it. The blue-clad Kansas fans made their presence felt as did their basketball team, marching off to an early 10-3 lead. Both Florida and Kansas were coming off heart-breaking, buzzer-beating losses meaning whichever ranked team lost Tuesday night faced a losing streak uncharacteristic of either program.
The highly touted Wiggins got off to a timid start. A few ill-advised, long distance jumpers were countered by a few nice drives, a solid offensive presence and not a single miss from the free throw line. His sluggish start instilled the Rowdy Reptile crowd into chants of “O-VER-RA-TED!” That was until he got hot later.
The Gators took advantage of a nervous, and less experienced, Kansas team, rattling off a 21-0 run, nearly putting the game out of reach. The Jayhawks went a full seven minutes without scoring. Florida’s 1-3-1 zone defense forced a disorganized Kansas offense into 16 first half turnovers. Florida had 11 offensive rebounds and held Kansas to only 16 field goal attempts after 18 minutes in the first half. You can’t score if you don’t shoot. The Gators led 36-21 at intermission.
For most of the game, Florida made one of college basketball’s winningest programs, and their highly touted freshmen, look like they didn’t belong on the same floor. That was until the second half. Kansas made adjustments and Wiggins got hot. The Jayhawks eventually narrowed the once stout Florida lead to five points. Gator fans got nervous with each Wiggins jumper. He poured in 18 that second half but ultimately, the lead was insurmountable. Florida took home the victory. For much of the game, Gators senior guard Scottie Wilbekin looked like the best player on the floor. That was until Andrew Wiggins asserted himself. Wilbekin might not get drafted. Wiggins will soon make millions.
Wiggins is not the next LeBron – such comparisons are unfair – but he does have a bright future. He finished the game with 26 points and 11 rebounds, his first college double-double. He’s not quite NBA ready yet but he doesn’t have to be. Come June, he’ll make one NBA GM very happy.
Seeing the next big thing to hit the NBA was a good addition to my sports bucket list. Seeing my alma mater come away with a well needed win was even better.