About a year ago, I wrote this piece detailing where Gator basketball coach Mike White stood in terms of job security, as well as my personal thoughts on him after his first three years in Gainesville. The idea was to express the frustration of the 2017-18 team, which found itself ranked #5 in the nation in early December, finishing the season with a loss in the Round of 32 after a regular season that indicated that that was where their season realistically should have ended, while reiterating my ultimate desire to see White succeed long term.
Yet here we are about 54 weeks later, and White’s fourth year did more to further muddy up his outlook than help clarify it. The result of that? A collective fan base divided, and many individuals conflicted, about White and his future.
So let’s sort it all out.
I feel like every conversation about White has to begin with the positives. For starters, I see him as a brilliant basketball mind whose in-game tactical maneuver hit rate is about as high as anybody’s. He’s especially known for drawing up baseline out-of-bounds plays, a large percentage of which result in dunks; this is made even more impressive when you consider the modestly talented roster he’s had the past two years (but more on that later) that took turns posterizing opponents before they even realized the ball had been inbounded. He’s also known for calling successful set plays in the half court offense, which when executed well kept Florida in games against far better teams.
On top of that, White has wrung some noticeable improvement out of a good amount of players in his time at Florida, particularly from players he recruited and signed. Examples A and B of this: Devin Robinson and Chris Chiozza became different players by the time they left from what they were when they arrived on campus as a freshman. But the best example of this has to be freshman Andrew Nembhard. The Canadian point guard led the team with 5.4 assists per game this year, so nobody ever really questioned his ability as a passer, but he came to Florida with a quirky release on his jump shot and suffered through several cold stretches from the midrange and outside. By the end of the year, his release had been quickened a bit and it translated into results, none more notable than his game winning three against LSU in the SEC Tournament to wrap up a bid to the even bigger tournament the following week. If White & Co. can get him to really step it up on the defensive side, he could be nothing short of a game changer.
Perhaps even more important than White’s X’s and O’s mind, though, is his recruiting, at least recently. Now, I can’t talk about what White has done on the trail recently without acknowledging that up until last year’s class, his signees have been a collective flop. Put simply, there’s a reason three underclassmen just decided to transfer. But in the interest of looking ahead, let’s focus less on his past and more on his future here.
Last year’s class was a solid one, as Keyontae Johnson, Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke all served in prominent roles as freshmen, but White appears to have hit the jackpot with his newest batch of signees. The recruiting wizards at 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals all agree that small forward Scottie Lewis, point guard Tre Mann and center Omar Payne each rank among the top 50 players in the class of 2019. So that’s not only a hat trick of top tier talent, that’s a healthy mix of needs filled; 247’s ranking grade suggests Lewis might rival Bradley Beal for the most talented overall player the Gators have ever signed, Mann sits tenth on that same list and Payne is the highest ranked center Florida has signed since (admitted mega-bust) Chris Walker in 2013. And in many situations, a treasure trove of talent can overcome a variety of deficiencies in other areas of the game.
Which brings us to those deficiencies.
Number one on this list has to be the aforementioned lack of talent, in particular at the 4/5 positions, and for this the metaphorical finger of blame cannot be pointed anywhere other than at White.
It’s true that Gorjok Gak missed the entire 2018/19 season because of a torn ACL, and that USF transfer John Egbunu’s career ended the same way, but any potential sympathy for White because of this takes a one way trip out the window when you realize that Gak was literally the only center White had ever recruited and signed at Florida before Payne. Three recruiting classes’ worth of his players, and one true center signed plus one more inherited from Billy Donovan’s final cycle (Kevarrius Hayes) for a grant total of two scholarship centers. Technically, Egbunu made three while healthy, but his career ended midway through the 2016-17 season and White never bothered to replace him. This left White zero wiggle room for when things didn’t go according to plan, like, say, if Hayes didn’t materialize into the high four star prospect he was signed as (he didn’t) or if Gak got hurt for an extended period of time (he did). That’s why you recruit depth or use the grad transfer portal- and the last two years, White did neither.
Predictably, the results of that were horrendous. Florida was outrebounded in literally two thirds of its games in the 2018-19 seasons (24 times in 36 games), a stat that’s even worse than it looks because of all the cupcake non-conference games that annually litter the early portion of the Gators’ schedule. Even worse, the lack of a dependable paint presence meant that Florida could rely on neither feeding the post nor having someone to clean up the misses for easy putbacks and second chance scoring opportunities on possessions. That crippled the Gator offense by limiting their possible methods of scoring points to getting hot from outside and forcing live ball turnovers to set up its transition game. And neither of those are sustainable formulas for points because even the Golden State Warriors have bad shooting nights sometimes, and because a good opponent can do a lot to limit its quantity of turnovers and there’s nothing you can do about that.
To his credit, White has taken recent steps to fix this issue. He did import Texas Tech frontcourt assistant coach Al Pinkins two months after his Red Raiders eliminated Florida in last year’s Round of 32. And not only did he pull in Payne in his Class of 2019, he also made a successful eleventh hour run at a second center, 6’10, 270 lb Jason Jitoboh out of Chattanooga, who if nothing else adds depth to that critical position. With the commitment of Ques Glover, White also still has two scholarship slots to fill in his program after a mass exodus last week that featured the departures of Keith Stone, Michael Okuaru, and Deaundrae Ballard, and the thinking is that he’s going to use those openings to try to land a couple of graduate transfer big men- which leaves him room for error if Isaiah Stokes never does materialize into what he was signed to be. So while the situation down low for White’s squad these past couple years has been below average at best, there’s clear evidence that he’s doing something to fix it.
The other major knock on White is that, for whatever reason, the O’Connell Center has become opponents’ glorified practice facility. And this isn’t a complaint that stems from losing home games to powerhouses like Michigan State or Kentucky, or a team having an isolated stretch of success like Tennessee. On the contrary, this stems directly from Florida getting Christian Laettnered against a South Carolina team that didn’t even get invited to the NIT after blowing a 14 point second half lead, and losing at home to Georgia- arguably the worst basketball program in the SEC- in the Bulldogs’ second worst season ever.
Alone, those two losses would be tolerable, but they were just two of eleven losses Florida suffered at home in the past two years. That’s the highest amount of home losses in a two year span for the Gators since 1995-96 and 1996-97 (Lon Kruger’s last year and Billy Donovan’s first), and it looks even worse when perspective is applied. Kansas has lost ten home games in the last twelve years. Kentucky has lost nine home games in the last six years. North Carolina has lost six home games in the last four years. It took Duke ten seasons to match Florida’s eleven home losses. And so on. The blue blood programs protect their home floor, and while Florida cannot be accurately categorized as a blue blood program, it is the next tier down from them, and thus should not be losing home games at an exponentially higher rate than them.
That said, the home losses are far more irritating than damaging, and all eleven of them in the last two years can be more than compensated for with a nice run in the NCAA Tournament next season. Those are the types of losses that encourage boosters to save their money and not renew their memberships, and the students to watch from the comfort of their apartments rather than at the arena, but they’re inherently survivable in the long run unless they become so pervasive that they come to define an entire season by costing the Gators a ticket to the Big Dance. And while he is the head coach of the program and everything does sort of fall back on him, it’s hard to imagine White doing anything in his daily routine that makes his teams more susceptible to ugly home losses, so there’s not a real cause you can point to that leads to this suboptimal effect of losing home games to teams that paper says the Gators should embarrass.
It would just make everyone with any sort of investment in Gator basketball appreciably happier if Mike White could regain control of his team’s home floor, is all.
So, where does Mike White stand?
In a single sentence: his job is still safe in the offseason that bridges year four and year five, but the pressure is mounting for him to display clear evidence that he’s cut out for this job. And he’ll have everything working in his favor to help him do so. The promising trio of Nembhard, Johnson and Locke will be sophomores, plus he’ll have one of the highest ranking recruiting classes in Gator basketball history on campus and at his disposal. On top of that, assuming he goes out and gets a grad transfer big man (which having two open scholarship spots leads me to strongly believe he will do), Florida will finally have some depth at its biggest weakness these last few years.
The Gators will be relatively young next year though, so if there’s a stumbling block in White’s path to success next year, that would be it. Of course, what Duke and Kentucky do with freshmen on an annual basis is not normal, and so having a top ten team that sees itself as a trendy Final Four pick when the time comes to fill out brackets is not fair to expect of White and his team. Growing pains are to be expected with a team of freshmen, sophomores and grad transfers.
But we’re also well past the point of excusing further regression. Florida took a noticeable step back from White’s second year to his third year, and another slight step back from his third year to his fourth year. These guys may be young, but they’re White’s hand picked guys. If they don’t produce a season that at minimum is an improvement from this year both in terms of metrics and results, it’s going to be difficult to fathom White lifting this program to the level that the school’s success in all other sports demands the basketball program live at. And that’s a position I would really rather not be in, as I’m sure athletic director Scott Stricklin would rather not be in either.
The stars are aligned for Mike White to succeed here. And his likability, energy and passion makes it easy for me to hope with all my heart that he does just that.