GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mike White has never hesitated to be blunt and critical in discussing his Florida basketball team after losses, but he struck a distinctly positive tone after the Gators’ 62-57 loss at Tennessee on Wednesday night.
Even though it was the team’s sixth loss in the last eight SEC games, its third straight loss and the continuation of a late-season collapse.
“I’m not playing any games. I’m always as honest as I can be — with you guys and with our team. I was really pleased with how hard we played. We went in there and battled those guys,” White said Friday. “Tennessee played really hard and they play really hard, and we went in the place and outrebounded them. I didn’t see that coming. I was hopeful that we’d step up to the challenge and get after it, and match their physicality and intensity level and defend and rebound, and we did that. Unfortunately, we came up a little bit short offensively.
“But we competed at a really high level. That’s been the biggest deficiency of this team: the consistency of our competitive level, and our competitiveness. As I told the guys, if we played that hard every day in practice and every game, we’d be sitting here with a few losses — that’s it — whether shots go in or not. I know it’s late in the year, and there are only a few left, but I was pleased.”
White said his team was as disappointed in the locker room after that loss as he’s seen them all season, and that too gives him encouragement about the collective attitude of this group.
“That’s a good sign. I would have rather had that four months ago, but I’m pleased to get it now,” he said.
Said guard Jalen Hudson: “We competed at a very high level and fought the whole game. It was pretty hard to take, that’s probably about as hard as we’ve played and we still lost. So it was hard to take.”
The question, of course, is how do the Gators (17-11, 8-7 SEC) respond to that when they host SEC-leading No. 12 Auburn (24-4, 12-3) Saturday night?
Florida vs. No. 12 Auburn
When | 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Where | Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
TV | SEC Network, with Dave Neal on the play-by-play call and Jon Sundvold as the analyst.
Watch online | The game can be streamed via WatchESPN.
At some point, Florida needs to add to its resume if it hopes to stay in the NCAA Tournament picture. The latest bracketology projections have the Gators anywhere from a No. 7 seed (ESPN) to a No. 12 playing in the First Four (CBS).
Auburn, meanwhile, can clinch at least a share of the SEC regular-season title for the first time since 1999 with a win or a Tennessee loss Saturday.
The Tigers recently lost starting 6-foot-7 forward Anfernee McLemore (7.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG) to injury, but they have a balanced roster led by guards Bryce Brown (16.4 PPG) and Mustapha Heron (16.1 PPG), who is reportedly feeling better after missing the last game with a stomach virus.
Florida doesn’t just have the Tigers to contend with, though, but also its perplexing struggles at home. The Gators have five home losses, including in two of their last three home games.
“I can’t imagine there’s many teams in the country that have the disparity that we have in terms of those intangibles at home and on the road, our togetherness, our camaraderie, our physical toughness, the way we just fly around and lay it on the line,” White said. “And it hasn’t been every game on the road or away from home, but it’s for the most part. And we’ve played just as well at home in certain games, but I think that for any fan or for any one of you guys that has really, really studied this team … I think it’d be hard to argue that we play as hard at home. And I don’t understand it.”
White acknowledged that the Gators being away from the bench on the defensive end in the second half of home games is part of the problem, as the defensive communication among the players remains an issue and in those scenarios the coaches can’t have the same impact in calling out adjustments.
But White also has felt throughout this season that this team gets affected too much by outside noise, by worrying what other people think, by worrying about stats or minutes played, etc.
“It’s about playing for each other and it’s about playing the same way that we play in between those lines at practice. It’s not about impressing anybody, it’s not about what your family member or your former coach is going to tell you after the game on the phone, it’s not about any of that. The dance team, the cheerleaders, the Rowdies, it’s not about that stuff, but I don’t think that’s gotten through, I don’t,” he said. “I say that, and let me backtrack, the last couple at home I feel like we have played very, very hard.”
Eventually, though, playing hard might not be enough to get the Gators into the NCAA Tournament if it doesn’t translate into some wins along the way.
And time is running short with just three regular-season games remaining.