The Gators didn’t hit shots. The Gators didn’t defend. The Gators didn’t take care of the ball. The only thing they did do in Oxford yesterday was set coach Mike White’s seat ablaze- a major plot twist in the season long story of his job security in the wake of the Gators’ ninth and most embarrassing loss of the season.
Other than a late first half spurt, Florida never really looked interested in putting up too much of a fight in a lopsided 68-51 loss to Mississippi, a team that they’d handled 71-55 in Gainesville last month. Now, it’s generally agreed upon by most who follow college basketball that Breein Tyrie is one of the better guards in the SEC. So in isolation, it would have been understandable to allow him to score 23 points when he’s averaging 19 per game. And it’s also worth pointing out that Florida guard Andrew Nembhard rolled an ankle late in the first half and didn’t seem to be the same player after that.
But Ole Miss came into the game a dreadful 2-7 in the SEC, ranked #102 in the NCAA’s NET rankings- which isn’t even close to good enough for the NIT, let alone the NCAA Tournament- and #115 in KenPom‘s advanced metric rankings. Florida, for its part, came into this game in desperate need of adding to its win count against the few clearly inferior teams left on its schedule in order to make a real push for the NCAA Tournament. With a pair of matchups against Kentucky, a return game against LSU, and games against Arkansas and Tennessee- who are nothing special, but appear to at least be on par with this Gator team- remaining, it’s as safe a bet as any that more losses are coming.
Because of that, Florida needed this win the way anybody reading this needs oxygen, and they didn’t get it. Because of that, a Gator squad that was supposed to be one of the best ever is now on the outside looking in regarding the NCAA Tournament. And because of that, Mike White’s seat has suddenly gone from being warm in spots to becoming engulfed in flames.
Throughout the course of the season, as losses quickly began piling up like autumn leaves, I get the sense that a lot of fans were of the opinion that although things weren’t looking great, they would get better by February and this team would peak in March. Which was a reasonable position. I didn’t agree with it (I predicted that the season would ultimately be remembered as a huge disappointment after the FSU game- though even I didn’t think that it would be this bad) but it was a mindset that I could slowly nod my head to and respond to with, “yeah, I guess that’s fair.”
Now, though, we’re in the middle of February and not only has this team not gotten better, it’s actually gotten worse. Scottie Lewis has flashed signs of his tremendous potential once every few games but overall has been a colossal bust. Tre Mann has been fine, more or less- he certainly hasn’t been the main liability for Florida- but he also hasn’t come close to matching the sky high expectations he entered the program with. Omar Payne could be a championship caliber puzzle piece in a year or two, but he’s simply not there yet. Kerry Blackshear, for as much as he helps try to right a sinking ship, has taken a clear step back from last season at Virginia Tech. And the team as a whole has now lost four of its last six games, with two of those losses coming in particularly embarrassing fashions to teams from the Magnolia State that Florida was solidly favored to beat.
Worst of all, it’s become clear beyond a reasonable doubt that this 2019-20 Gator basketball team has already shown us the final and best version of itself. It will never get to be appreciably better than what we’ve seen over the course of the season. No team ever really has under White, so why should the pattern break now? To predict this squad to make a deep tournament run at this point would be going directly against logic, and reason, and three and a half months worth of game film that’s ranged from mediocre to downright atrocious- and remember, at this point they have an uphill climb ahead of them to even make the NCAA Tournament- and thus would be nothing short of foolish.
But that was what this team was supposed to do given the mass import of new talent. When the Gators inevitably fail to achieve this, it will mean that this basketball program has dramatically underachieved in two of the last three years, with the remaining year in that sample size (the 2018-19 season) merely being another uninspiring, lackluster season. At a place like Florida, that just isn’t acceptable. White has taken a proud program with five Final Fours (only fourteen schools have more) and two national championships (only nine schools have more) and turned it into a middle of the pack team in what’s been a fairly weak SEC over the past three years. Now, this season, which was lowlighted by yesterday’s ugly loss to Ole Miss, has been so bad that at the end of the day, there’s only one correct course of action for Scott Stricklin to take if he ever wants his basketball program to be taken seriously. And it’s no longer therapeutic to try to fool yourself. He will take it. It’s a matter of when, not if.
The fact that Stricklin did just sign White to an extension through 2024-25 likely means that his trigger finger won’t move this year. It’s why Mike White’s seat is currently on fire rather than Mike White’s seat currently being a pile of ashes. Stricklin has to give him one more season now, or else he and his boosters will choke on $8.75M. So White isn’t dead quite yet. But while the potential frustration of buying out a coach a few short months after extending him will probably save White after this year, next season will place him in the unenviable position of having to win games at a clip that he has seldom proven able to win at. Otherwise, Florida- a school with some of the deepest pockets in America- will pony up the $7M needed to get rid of him after the 2020-21 season, unless Scott Stricklin harbors a secret desire to turn the O’Connell Center into an echo chamber two years from now.
You can bet on that just the way you can bet on this program being an also-ran as long as Mike White remains the coach.