GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mike White’s first season as Florida’s men’s basketball coach was — well, it was a start.
The Gators finished 21-15 overall and 9-9 in the SEC last season, showing modest improvement from Billy Donovan’s final campaign before he left to take over the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
It was far from the heights Donovan led the program to during his successful run in Gainesville, including one last Final Four appearance in 2014, but nobody expected those levels last season.
Not yet, at least.
Now that White has had a year to settle in, though, the expectations will only increase and his own track record feeds into that.
During Florida’s preseason basketball media day Thursday — which was quickly overshadowed by the announcement that the Gators’ football game with LSU had been indefinitely postponed — White was reminded of what he accomplished in his second season as the head coach at Louisiana Tech.
After going 18-16 in his head coaching debut there, White led the Bulldogs to a nine-win improvement in his second season while posting 27, 29 and 27 wins over the next three years.
Can he do the same at Florida?
“If you could promise we’d win 30 this year, I’d take it right now,” White said. “I guess there are some similarities in that it’s your second year, not only in a new community and you’re adjusted, personally of course with your family and so on and so forth, but most importantly for the program you have a better sense as to who you have, who you’re working with, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what your team’s strengths and weaknesses are.”
Even more important, perhaps, is that the Gators now have a better feel for White.
As several Florida players acknowledged Thursday, it took most of last season for them to fully buy in to White and adjust to a new way of business.
That’s as much a reason as any for increased optimism heading into year two of the new regime.
“Last year was a lot of uncertainty — unsure about him as a person, as a coach. We didn’t really know much about him as a team, and then we had to learn more about him, see what he’s expecting,” junior forward Devin Robinson said. “And in the middle of the year we started figuring out what to expect from him, (and) he knew what to expect from us so we started getting along a lot better. Now it’s carrying over to this year and we have a better relationship personally and our trust in him is different this year.”
That was a shared sentiment among the veteran players who spoke at media day Thursday.
“We’ve got a better relationship. I feel like everybody on the team does now so we have a different level of trust and just a different relationship. I feel like that’s going to help us out a lot,” junior guard Chris Chiozza said. “When you have that feeling you can trust somebody then you’re just going to give everything you got for them.”
Said senior guard Kasey Hill: “I think guys are way more comfortable around him. Like, we can actually talk and laugh (with him) and stuff. I’m not saying we couldn’t do it last year, but guys are like more open to doing it now and I think that’s a good thing to have that between the head coach and the players.”
Mike White’s career coaching profile
|2012-13||Louisiana Tech||27-7||16-2||NIT 2nd Rd. (1-1)|
|2013-14||Louisiana Tech||29-8||13-3||NIT QF (2-1)|
|2014-15||Louisiana Tech||27-9||15-3||NIT QF (2-1)|
|2015-16||Florida||21-15||9-9||NIT QF (2-1)|
|Overall||5 years||122-55||59-25||Four NIT berths (7-4)|
One of the main obstacles last year, the players said, was that they were so ingrained with Donovan’s coaching style and expectations.
He was an institution unto himself at Florida after 19 seasons, 467 wins, four Final Four appearances and those back-to-back national championships in 2006-07.
That’s a hard shadow to escape as a rookie head coach in the SEC.
“Guys who played for Coach Donovan always (would be like), ‘Yeah, Coach D didn’t do things like this. Coach D did things like that.’ We were so accustomed to the way Coach D was teaching us that we didn’t really open our eyes to what the new guy, Coach White, was teaching us,” Robinson said. “But once we let go of the past and started looking at the present and future, we became better and started trusting Coach White a lot more.”
Said Hill: “Guys would always revert back to Coach Donovan because that’s what we knew. So I think guys are way more bought in to what Coach White wants us to do, and I think that’s how it needs to be.”
The players felt the change around the middle to end of last season.
After a stretch of five losses in six games while slumping to the finish line, the Gators closed the regular season with a win at Missouri, went 1-1 in the SEC tournament and then won their first two games in the NIT.
For a program that won six regular-season SEC championships under Donovan and made 14 NCAA tournament appearances in his 19 seasons, the NIT was hardly a consolation prize.
But the players saw something in White through that experience and the way he approached it.
“We just knew how committed he was and he was still pushing us even thought we were in the NIT, still pushing us like we were in the NCAA tournament,” Robinson said. “His will to win just like really caught our attention, like this man is serious about us and we should trust in that.”
Said Chiozza: “You could tell by how we played. It seemed like we played with more confidence, just more freely.”
That it took that long to buy in to White and his coaching style was not personal or an indictment on him in any way, Chiozza said.
The players were going to need time regardless of who the new guy was following Donovan.
“I think it’s just human nature,” Chiozza said. “You don’t really meet people and just tell them your life story. Some people do, but most people on our team, we weren’t raised that way. You’ve got to earn trust. Coach White, he’s earned it. All the coaches have and they’re great people. Everybody’s really looking forward to playing for him this year.”
Top returning players for Florida
**Graduate transfer Canyon Barry, a 6-6, 215-pound guard, averaged 19.7 PPG at College of Charleston last season.
While the players’ increased comfort level with White feeds their confidence for the season ahead, White’s optimism comes from the wealth of returning experience.
The Gators bring back five players who started a significant percentage of the games last season in sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen (11.6 points per game last season), Chiozza (7.2 PPG, 4.3 APG), redshirt-junior center John Egbunu (11.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG), Hill (9.1 PPG, 3.3 APG) and Robinson (9.0, 5.6), who is still working his way back from foot surgery and admits he’s not at 100 percent just yet.
Leading scorer Dorian Finney-Smith is gone from the front court, but sophomore forward/center Kevarrius Hayes and redshirt-freshman forward Keith Stone could be ready to make an impact. Meanwhile, graduate transfer Canyon Barry (a 6-foot-6 guard) is a highly-intriguing addition after averaging 19.7 points per game at College of Charleston last year.
So getting back to that question about year two growth, White said he sees some parallels between what he was able to do at Louisiana Tech and what he hopes to do now at Florida.
“That second year, it’s a good point you bring up. I hadn’t thought about it much, but we returned a bunch that second year. This year we return a bunch. So there are obvious similarities there,” he said. “Probably some differences, too, in terms of the level and the schedule, and the non-conference schedule specific to our predicament and all those type things. But probably a bunch of similarities.”