GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Throughout the preseason and leading up to his team’s season opener Friday night, Florida basketball coach Mike White has made it pretty clear that he doesn’t have any plans to settle on a starting five.
He’s also made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t think his players should be worried about such things.
Florida will tip off its second season under White with the first of its many early season neutral-site games, meeting Florida Gulf Coast on Friday night at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
The Gators don’t have an on-campus home game scheduled until Dec. 21 due to the ongoing renovations of Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, while playing instead at various arenas around the state. But the court and scenery likely won’t be the only thing changing from game to game.
“I don’t want our guys so focused on starting,” White said on Wednesday. “I try not to make it an issue. I’d like to reward guys based upon productivity more than anything, not only in games but practice. I don’t even want to have my mind made up right now as to who’s starting Friday night because if one of the starters has an average practice and a guy has an unbelievable practice, I would like to reward that guy.”
The Gators have a couple experienced options at point guard with Chris Chiozza (7.2 points per game) and Kasey Hill (9.1), who combined for 39 starts last season.
They are set at center with 6-foot-11 John Egbunu (11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds per game in 2015-16) and likely at shooting guard with KeVaughn Allen (11.6 PPG). Graduate transfer newcomer Canyon Barry is also expected to be a factor as a perimeter option after scoring 19.7 points per game at College of Charleston last season.
And at forward, there are several options with Devin Robinson (9.0 PPG), Justin Leon, Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes. Stone is a high-upside addition after redshirting last season.
“I like to keep my entire bench hungry,” White continued. “… If the guys I start on Friday night, all five play really, really well and you start them on Sunday night and they play really, really well, who knows, we might have a conventional starting five. But right now I see we have six, seven, eight, nine guys that have a chance, especially six or seven of them.”
White’s big message is unselfishness. He clarifies that he doesn’t think his first Florida team was extreme in the other direction, but there was room for improvement.
Asked his biggest observation of the roster through the preseason, he said it has to do with a stronger culture.
“We didn’t have a horrible culture last year. I wouldn’t categorize us as extremely selfish, but I wouldn’t categorize us as the most selfless team around or in our league. We need to be more selfless,” he said. “We allowed noise our guys had to deal with to affect our energy level, to affect our intensity level and other areas. … And, of course, with the NCAA Tournament distraction there for that 6-8 weeks, I think that became a factor a little bit, too.”
Florida did not make the NCAA tournament last year, settling for an NIT berth and finishing with a 21-15 overall record.
The Gators were picked second in the SEC’s preseason media poll. Chiozza claimed he didn’t even know that, nor is the team caught up in any such expectations.
“We don’t really care about it,” Chiozza said. “I don’t even know where we were picked, so that’s news to me. I don’t really pay attention to it. I just know that Kentucky was going to be No. 1 because everybody likes Kentucky.”
As for the culture element, he said there is simply a better understanding of White’s expectations now in his second season.
Several Florida players had discussed that during the team’s media day last month. They talked about how it took time to buy in to White and build trust with the man who replaced longtime Gators head coach Billy Donovan.
“I think we’re more of a team this year and just more bought in to do whatever coach tells us to do,” Chiozza said. “Last year, we did what he asked, but this year I think everybody, like we already had a feeling of what to do before he tells us to do it. Just more in tune with each other and the coaching staff. …
“It’s just we’ve grown closer together since last year. It’s just over time, you get closer connections with people. I think that the second year is going to be a big step for us.”
That’s what White is hoping. Specifically, he’s hoping for marked improvement in Florida’s shooting percentages after ranking among the worst teams in the country in field goal percentage (42.6 percent, 242nd nationally), free throw shooting (64.7, 323rd) and 3-point shooting (31.9, 290th) last season.
He prefaces that optimism by saying that he doesn’t expect the Gators to suddenly swing to the other end of the spectrum. Defense will have to remain the strength for this team, but a step forward offensively would surely help.
At this point, though, he’s just ready to see his team tested and he knows his players are ready to get going.
“Our last intrasquad was Sunday and we weren’t nearly as sharp,” White said. “A couple different ways to look at it. One way is, my goodness, what happened? We were so the good the previous week, the previous two weeks. The positive is, these guys are probably just sick of playing against each other. I think our guys are probably chomping at the bit — and they need to be. We’re going to have to play well Friday night.”
Gak cleared to play this season
Florida announced Thursday night that freshman forward/center Gorjok Gak has been ruled eligible, with the approval of a waiver, and will have four years of eligibility.
The 6-foot-11 prospect from Australia is cleared to play Friday night in the opener after initially being told by the NCAA during the summer that he would not be eligible this season.
“I’m extremely happy for Gorjok,” White said in a statement. “Our administration spent a lot of time fighting for him and during that time, despite assuming he wouldn’t be eligible to play this season, Gorjok was a steady contributor at our practices with his work ethic.”