DALLAS — After a grueling NCAA Tournament loss to Texas Tech, after consoling his team and praising his two seniors, and after finishing his postgame media session, Florida basketball coach Mike White headed back toward the locker room late Saturday night.
Not that there was any comfort to be found within those sterile concrete walls inside the American Airlines Center.
So, accommodating as always, even in the wake of a heartbreaking season-ending knockout, White managed a friendly smile and stopped for a few more questions — a final reflection on the season that was and some preliminary thoughts on what is ahead.
“The players said it, and I don’t mean to be cliche and copy my guys’ lines to the media, but it hadn’t fully sunk in,” he said. “I’m so down for our guys, especially our seniors, but I know because I’ve been here before of course, that tomorrow when I wake up I’ll be even more down. I will. You go through a stretch there of two, three, four days where you don’t know what to do with yourself. You’re just ready to get back to next season.”
No. 6-seeded Florida had two final looks on potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final seconds, but neither would fall as No. 3 Texas Tech held on for a 69-66 win.
A few inches here or there and the Gators might have gone to overtime, might have kept this rollercoaster season climbing higher. Instead came the swift and sudden descent.
Seniors Egor Koulechov, who took the first of those two final 3s, and Chris Chiozza put their hands on their heads and moved in slow motion as everything they had worked toward for so long as college basketball players came to an abrupt end — as if there’s any other kind.
Immediately, the most impatient, irrational and illogical segments of the fan base took to social media to vent about White, the third-year coach with a 4-2 NCAA Tournament record and an Elite 8 appearance already on his Florida resume.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin would nip that in the bud Saturday night with a tweet of his own.
— Scott Stricklin (@ScottStricklin) March 18, 2018
It’s doubtful White would have even taken much notice to that noise. He had so much else on his mind.
This season had tested White like few before in his career.
He and his staff spent most of it trying to find the right buttons to press to ignite a team that lacked outward fire, that didn’t always maintain its focus on defense, that didn’t seem to take losses hard enough.
That said, he’d always offer the caveat of how much he liked these guys — he just saw more potential in them.
As he met with the players right after the game, he shared his appreciation with a team that he felt had finally started to find itself over the final weeks.
“It’s pretty confidential, but basically what he was saying is he wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else. He loves this group of guys,” junior guard Jalen Hudson shared. “He was mainly talking to the seniors, Chris Chiozza and Egor. He just kind of went over their career and how they’ve grown and just thanked them for coming here and fighting and leading the right way.”
White also embraced Allen, who had spent the previous day away from the team attending a memorial service back in his native Arkansas for a friend who died. As the locker room door swung open, White was giving Allen a hug as he talked with him.
“I think KeVaughn’s in a very emotional state right now,” White would share later. “He lost a loved one. He missed practice, he missed workout, he missed a lot of the prep mentally, and he came back and it obviously wasn’t his night offensively. I thought he played hard as heck. I thought he gave it his all.”
White and Allen had many talks this season, but usually about trying to keep the sharpshooting guard aggressive on the offensive end. It would have been fitting if he had knocked down that final 3-pointer from the corner to force overtime and keep this season going.
“It felt good. It just didn’t go in,” Allen would say. “It just felt good the whole way.”
It just wasn’t meant to be for the Gators on Saturday night. Or this season, in a lot of ways.
Florida never got injured senior center John Egbunu back on the court, as it had hoped. Many felt Egbunu would be the answer to the Gators’ obvious frontcourt deficiencies when he returned from his ACL recovery in January … or February. But his knee kept swelling, the rehab stalled and he never made it back.
Nor did freshman big man Isaiah Stokes, also working his way back from a torn ACL. And freshman forward Chase Johnson, who might have been able to develop into a productive part of the rotation, missed too much time the first half of the season recovering from concussions.
The injuries were “a pain in the butt,” White admitted Saturday night, although he was pleased his players never used them as an excuse. It’s definitely a what-if, though.
All the while, White and his staff were working to change the identity of the team, from one that started the season wanting to simply outscore opponents, to one that played more in his defense-first mentality. It was a rocky transformation, to say the least, and as the Gators lost six of eight SEC games during one stretch, critics may have wondered if simply playing to their uptempo offensive strengths might have been a better option.
White never relented on this, though, and by the end he really liked the team the Gators had become. A team that closed the regular season with three straight impressive wins over Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky, and a team that shook off a dud in the SEC Tournament to force 18 turnovers and handle business comfortably against St. Bonaventure in its NCAA Tournament opener.
A team that needed just one of those final two 3s to fall Saturday night to have a chance to maybe keep it all going into next weekend.
“It was a long season, it was. It was a rewarding season in a lot of ways despite what all the exterior noise will tell you. Because this group grew so much during the season,” White said. “Last year we kind of were what we were and we had a really consistent, good year. This year we go from being a team that couldn’t guard a soul and we’re giving up a lot of points and not sure we really cared that much about it early in the season — we were fighting each other to see who could be leading scorer. … This team has really grown. I’m proud of their effort. We’re a lot more connected than we were. I wish we had another month in the season, I really do.”
Instead, the Gators will turn the page and start looking ahead.
White will soon have meetings with his returning players. Hudson, who led Florida in scoring this season at 15.5 points per game and averaged 19.5 points over the two NCAA Tournament games, said he hasn’t thought about his future yet. He would seem wise to return for his senior season, though he could choose to pursue a professional career.
“I haven’t thought about it at all,” he said Saturday night.
Egbunu also hasn’t announced whether he would attempt to pursue a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, though it seems more likely he’ll move on with his own professional opportunities.
Either way, Florida will be starting over in a lot of ways. Chiozza (11.1 PPG, 6.1 assists per game), the program’s all-time assists leader and the steadying floor leader for this team, leaves a huge void behind.
Mike Okauru, who averaged 11.1 minutes and 3.8 points per game as a freshman this season, is one option to take over at point guard. The Gators will also add PG signee Andrew Nembhard (a 5-star recruit according to the 247Sports composite).
Koulechov, who finished second on the team in scoring at 13.8 PPG as a productive graduate transfer, is another key loss. He was a scrappy player who managed to lead the team with 6.4 rebounds per contest as a 6-foot-5 guard and who often took on unenviable defensive matchups against larger opponents.
Meanwhile, the Gators should return Allen (11.0 PPG), emerging forward Keith Stone (8.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG), veteran forward/center Kevarrius Hayes (4.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG) and in addition to Okauru, a collection of young players in guard Deaundrae Ballard, forwards Johnson, Stokes and Dontay Bassett and center Gorjok Gak.
They also add a pair of 4-star recruits in shooting guard Noah Locke and forward Keyontae Johnson.
Speaking late Saturday night, White wasn’t fully ready to start considering how all the pieces fit together in that puzzle yet.
“Oh my goodness, I just haven’t put any thought to it. I was hoping we’d have a nice flight home, and were planning on the next one and getting back of course,” he said. “Just top of my head, I like some of the young pieces we have, I like some of the older guys that we’ll bring back. Replacing Egor will be tough of course, but everything we did we ran through Chris offensively and defensively, so replacing him is crucial for us. I like our signees, but we’ll be very, very different. So we’ll reexamine everything we’re doing offensively and defensively. We’ll try to tailor make it to our new roster.
“We don’t know who that is right now, though. We’re going to have a lot of meetings of course with our underclassmen and then two, three, four weeks into practice next fall we’ll start figuring out what our strengths and weaknesses are and what puts us in a position to have some success.”
In the meantime, the sting remains. It just has to run its course, and it will.
That’s the way it goes this time of year.
“As down as I am, in the next couple days I’ll start getting really excited about that journey and about being productive in the offseason, figuring out different ways we can get better as a program,” White said.