Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin was nine years old when he first caught the bug.

His AAU coach was very defensive minded, then, and he had the team pressing opponents a lot.

“I just loved getting steals,” he said.

A decade later, the junior’s mindset hasn’t changed. Wilbekin grabs an average of 1.5 steals a game and is a major part of how Florida harasses opponents into turnovers on 21.8 percent of their possessions.

He’s also a big part of why Florida has morphed in the last couple years from a team that was known mainly for its offense, to a balanced squad with a reputation for smothering D.

“I think the addition of Scottie Wilbekin, defensively, has added something to our team.” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “I think if you would go back and look at last year, we were able to make a run in the NCAA tournament (Florida made it to the Elite Eight before falling to Louisville) because of the way we defended the 3-point line during those three or four games.

“… I think [Wilbekin] has three qualities that enable him to be very, very good [on defense],” Donovan said. “He’s really got good feet. The second thing is, he is a physical defender. He can get through, around and off screens very, very well. And then I would say the third thing is he is a guy that’s a tough-minded defender, maybe more so than any guard I ever coached. He values that. He himself puts a lot of value on defending.”

Tonight, as the 11-seed Gophers go up against the 3-seed Gators, Wilbekin will be trying to stop Andre Hollins – the MVP of the UCLA game in the first round with 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

Hollins had five 3-pointers in that one (an NCAA tournament record for Minnesota), which were critical in getting the Gophers over the hump. Can he go off in the same way tonight against Wilbekin? With Austin Hollins battling a cold, the Minnesota point guard’s shot could be even more critical vs. Florida.

“He’s a quick defender,” Andre Hollins said. “He keeps his hands active, he moves his feet well. He’s a solid PG. I have to contain him and I have to protect the ball like any other game.”

Hollins had just a single turnover (the Gophers had 11 overall) against Florida, but the Gophers weren’t exactly pressured by UCLA. Tonight will be a different story, and a different test for the sophomore – one that’s fun for Wilbekin who said he’s embraced his role as defensive stopper.

“I love playing defense,” he said. “And it helps when you got guys that are beside me right now that love playing defense as well.”

Other notes on tonight’s matchup:

  • A Gophers’ team source said Austin Hollins should be good to go tonight. The junior was battling the same cold in Minnesota’s first-round win over UCLA. Hollins, to his credit, didn’t want to acknowledge he was sick at all.
  • While Donovan won his last six games against Tubby Smith, the Gophers’ head coach holds the overall advantage in their lifetime head-to-head, with a 16-10 record in the 26 times they have met as head coaches.
  • If the Gophers win tonight, they will advance to the Sweet Sixteen, where they would play either San Diego State or Florida Gulf Coast. Minnesota hasn’t been to the Sweet Sixteen since 1997, record that was vacated. Officially, the Gophers were last at the Sweet Sixteen in 1990.
  • Didn’t mention this on Friday, but Austin Hollins’ seven assists were a new career high. His previous career high was six. Hollins’ fantastic game – he also had 16 points and four steals was kind of over-shadowed because the “other” Hollins stole the story. But a great peformance.
  • In that game, Minnesota shot 50.8 percent from the field. The Gophers have done so eight times this season (four times in the Big Ten schedule) and are a perfect 8-0 in those games.

Florida thoughts:

Donovan on the Gophers’ rebounding: “They’re a terrific offensive and defensive rebounding team. [Trevor] Mbakwe is as good as there is in the country. But they chase it. They go after it. They do a really good job and this will be, again, not only a challenge for our frontcourt but it will be a challenge for our team to collectively be able to rebound the basketball. Because certainly their misses, they get a large percentage of their misses back.”

Wilbekin on Andre Hollins: “Well, first of all, he’s a great scorer and he can score in a multitude of ways. So I really got to just be ready and I got to count on my guys to help me if I get beat. But I don’t know, just be ready to contain him and don’t let him get any easy shots, always have a hand in his face.”

More Minnesota thoughts:

Trevor Mbakwe on the matchup with Florida: “There’s going to cause problems for most teams just because they’re one of the best teams in the country and they’ve shown it throughout the season. We haven’t played many teams this physical and that defend the ball the way they do, but we’re high on each other. We feel like we can win the game as long as we play with a confidence and don’t get too discombobulated and turn over the ball, we’ll be fine.”

Andre Hollins on the necessity of hitting 3-pointers: “It means the world. You knock down shots, you stop the other team’s transitions, gives you time to set up a defense, like we set up our press – we also pressed a little bit more and I think that worked well. You put the ball in the hole, I mean, that’s the object of the game. Score more points than the other team. Obviously it takes a lot of pressure off of all the other aspects of the game.”

Extra points:

*Today’s game will be on TNT at 5:10 CT.
*Listen to today’s game live on 1500-a.m.
*In today’s Star Tribune: Gopher’s guard play make life a lot easier.
*In today’s Star Tribune: Gophers notes: Florida’s Billy Donovan shows coaching versatility.
*The call: breaking down the matchups.
*On the blog: Ten things you should know about Florida.
*Gophers notes from yesterday’s media access.

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Postgame: Season is over, and Tubby Smith's future in doubt