NEW YORK — Standing in a concourse inside Madison Square Garden after his postgame media session Sunday, chatting further with a handful of reporters, Florida basketball coach Mike White talked about what the Gators accomplished this season.
He didn’t talk about the Elite Eight appearance, specifically. Or the 27 wins. Or putting Florida basketball back on a national stage.
No, he talked mostly about culture.
That’s been a major emphasis for White since he took over the program. First, he had to take an inherited roster and get it to buy into a new set of voices. Then he had to get it to translate onto the court into the selfless collective mentality with a relentless defensive approach that carried the Gators all the way to Madison Square Garden and the penultimate weekend of the college basketball season.
“We’ve got not only good young talent, we’ve got great kids now that have been a part of a culture recharge, a re-creation of the culture that coach (Billy) Donovan created here that obviously was very, very successful,” White said. “We didn’t make all the right basketball plays today, we didn’t make all the right basketball plays this season, but I’m really proud of where our culture is today.”
He wasn’t quite ready to evaluate where the roster is, though, looking ahead to 2017-18.
There are unknown variables, of course. Namely, whether forward Devin Robinson returns for his senior season or takes an opportunity to start his pro career. Robinson, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, said after the game he was motivated by the potential for another NCAA Tournament run, but he hadn’t made any decision yet.
Meanwhile, the Gators know they’ll lose senior point guard Kasey Hill, who keyed that aggressive defensive mentality but was erratic at times on the offensive end. They’ll also lose senior guard Canyon Barry, who ranked second on the team with 11.4 points per game, senior forward Justin Leon (7.4 PPG, team-high 18 points Sunday vs. South Carolina) and senior walk-on Schuyler Rimmer.
“I’ve got to think about who’s coming back, who’s not,” White said. “We’ve got a couple guys that are going to probably have decisions to make and I want what’s in their best interests. I want them to do what’s best for them period and then we’ll figure out who’s going to be on board with the Gators, assuming a handful of these guys return, assuming that I want all of them to return and they’re doing the right things on and off the floor over the next couple of months.”
It’s not clear what players other than Robinson have a decision to make. Assuming the rest return, what’s left is solid nucleus — albeit one with some obvious questions.
Chris Chiozza, who hit the buzzer-beater against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, is poised to take over at point guard for his senior season after averaging 7.2 points and 3.8 assists. Eric Hester should see a bigger role as the backup at that spot heading into his sophomore season.
KeVaughn Allen, the Gators’ leading scorer at 14.0 points per game (including a career-high 35 in that Sweet 16 win), may have to become even more of an offensive focal point.
Kevarrius Hayes (6.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG) would give Florida a veteran presence at center after taking over as the starter down the stretch following John Egbunu’s season-ending knee injury. It’s unclear how much the Gators will be able to get from Egbunu next season as he tore his ACL on Feb. 14. With the standard recovery time for such an injury generally set at nine months, that could mean working Egbunu in mid-season assuming he progresses well.
Florida would also have 6-foot-11 sophomore Gorjok Gak as an option off the bench at center as he continues to develop.
Meanwhile, Keith Stone (3.6 PPG) would have to become more of a factor after showing moments of promise as a redshirt freshman. He could slide into either the 4 or 3 spot.
Getting Robinson back would be a huge boost for the Gators and make this puzzle easier to piece together, as he would project as the clear secondary offensive option next to Allen with the rest of those options hard to project.
Jalen Hudson, a 6-foot-6 junior guard, will join the mix after sitting out last season following his transfer from Virginia Tech, where he averaged 8.4 points as a sophomore starter.
Along with the incoming freshmen, Dontay Bassett, a 6-foot-9 forward, is another option after redshirting this season due to a preseason stress fracture in his foot.
“It’ll be tough to get back next year. It’s tough for everybody. But we’ve got a taste of it. I’m sure this will give us confidence leading into the offseason,” White said. “Again, I think there’s more buy-in to the culture now that’s been re-created. Our guys know what’s expected of them. And we’ll continue to add recruits to the mix, these guys will continue to develop, doing the right things off the floor.
“Our league is going to be, on paper, in my my opinion going into the next season, really, really good, and hopefully we’re one of those teams that does all the little things to do enough to be back here.”
As Chiozza said, the Gators got as far as they did by building a chemistry and balance that allowed them to overcome the loss of Egbunu and cold streaks for one particular player or another, all while the collective effort remained steady and dependable.
Re-creating that goes hand-in-hand with rebuilding the rotation, but the players feel they can build off their successes this season.
“I feel like we came together this year and got Florida back to where it’s been in the past. We’re just going to try to continue to do that and get better each year and become one of those elite schools every year again,” Chiozza said.
Said Hayes: “I’m proud of everybody in here. We’ve all put in some piece, some effort, some bit of ourselves just to get here and that’s probably why it hurts the most, because it was like a team effort to make it here, and just to have to go home right now is kind of saddening. … (But) I feel like we’re going to come back stronger.”
While creating that culture within the team may be what White is proudest of this season, the Gators’ success and NCAA Tournament run also did a lot for outside perception.
Fair or not, White still had plenty to prove in his second year since taking over the program from Donovan, and he and his staff definitely garnered a lot of confidence this season.
That should only help on the recruiting trail and the momentum outside the locker room.
“The calls and texts have been returned a little bit quicker, for sure. Our reception has continued to warm. I think kids and families and coaches, they’re not only excited about just the fact that we’re winning, but they see these guys developing,” White said. “Recruits and families that have come to campus and been in our locker room, they like our guys. They like what our culture is about right now. It will only continue to improve.”