GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Last week, coach Mike White said he felt one way his Florida basketball team could strengthen itself down the stretch would be to get more production from its young bench players.
It didn’t quite make a difference on the scoreboard Wednesday night as the Gators took a deflating overtime loss to Georgia, but freshman guard Mike Okauru has continued to answer that challenge in recent games while taking advantage of his increased opportunities.
After not factoring into the first meeting with Georgia just four games earlier, Okauru logged 14 minutes Wednesday night while hitting 5 of 6 shots (including 2 3-pointers) for 14 points. It was his highest scoring output in SEC play and his most points since scoring 15 against Stanford back in November, and he also added 2 steals.
That followed performances of 9 points against LSU and 8 points at South Carolina for Okauru after totaling just 1 point in the previous five games.
“I think he changed his overall attitude about three weeks ago. He got out of the freshman blues, ‘Woe is me, why am I not playing more?’ Like a lot of these guys go through. It’s all part of college basketball,” White said. “He himself obtained a renewed, I guess, lack of entitlement and he really just got to work. We had a conversation about, ‘Mike, if you work your butt off every single day you’re going to have an opportunity. And if you get three minutes and you wanted 10 you don’t go back in the tank the next day in practice. We’ve got to be grown men about this. This is the University of Florida. This isn’t high school basketball.’
“I think that’s where a lot of freshmen have struggles. They feel like they deserve more, and when he kind of rearranged his mindset in terms of ‘What do I need to do to just help this team?’ coincidentally he starts playing better. When it’s about the team you play better.”
Okauru, who was rated a 4-star prospect by ESPN and a 3-star by Rivals and 247Sports, admits he had become frustrated with his lack of role on game days and went into White’s office to have a conversation about it.
“It just got to a point, I was just fed up with not playing so I went into his office, we just talked and, you know, he told me what I had to do to get on the court and I’ve been working hard and I’ve been doing that ever since,” Okauru said.
Okauru would seem to be in line for a much larger role next season after senior point guard Chris Chiozza moves on, and every strong performance like the one he gave Wednesday night will only help with that.
Okauru says he understood he’d have to be patient this first season.
“That’s something like all freshmen all around the country deal with so I’m just learning from Chris as much as I can and just going on from there,” he said. “I knew coming in I’d have to wait. Chris is like one of the best guards in the country, so I kind of expected that coming in.”
But not being able to contribute while watching the game struggle surely tested that patience.
Okauru has gotten at least 11 minutes in each of the last four games after logging 0 minutes in that road game at Georgia, and if he keeps performing in those limited opportunities he should continue to find a place in the rotation.
“I think I can be a great defender for this team. If I need to score or whatever, I can do that as well,” he said.
Said White: “I think with these young guys it’s a matter of gaining confidence and getting into the rhythm of the game. And then if you can help us, help us. He’s been pretty good.”