More #MidMajorMike malpractice costs Florida basketball against Kentucky

#MidMajorMike

I’ll give the man that many Florida fans refer to as #MidMajorMike one thing: he sure knows how to make me look prophetic.

On January 29th, 2020, I published this in-depth memo detailing all the reasons why Mike White was not cut out for the Florida Gators basketball head coaching job. In that article, I wrote in part…

…let’s talk about White’s end-of-game management. It’s not merely poor, or bad. It’s horrible. More often than is acceptable for a coach of an elite program, whatever the worst possible move or strategy one could deploy in a given late game situation is, White deploys it. And it usually costs Florida the game.

…before going on to list several examples of where his coaching decisions negatively affected the Gators late in a close game. Among the examples: not fouling Zak Showalter with a three point lead and :6.5 showing on the clock, setting up the game tying three, getting dunked on to death by Chris Silva after letting him get behind the entire defense on a baseball pass with :1.5 left, not defending the three point line against sharp-shooting Yante Maten with a six point lead and twenty seconds to go, and drawing up a game winning three set play for the coldest shooter on the floor- in a one point game. And there were many, many others, but the idea was to not harp too much on one reason why White is in over his head in order to adequately touch on all the other reasons he’s in over his head.

Guess what happened in the regular season finale? White added another example of late-game ineptitude costing Florida a game. And though recentism has a way of clouding objectivity in situations like this, it just may have been the most devastating such episode yet.

Skip ahead to midway through the second half of Florida’s bi-annual rivalry with Kentucky. Everything was going right for the Gators on this day, so much so that you might’ve bet your house for a hundred dollars that Florida would win the game when there were twelve minutes left.

Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley was in foul trouble, barely logged 20 minutes of game action and didn’t play down the stretch. Star Wildcat guard Ashton Hagans didn’t even make the trip down to Gainesville. Kentucky coach John Calipari got nailed with not one but two technical fouls and was headed to the tunnel, fully convinced he was done coaching for the day, before someone told him that one of the technicals was actually called on the bench as opposed to him personally. And above all, Florida was shooting well, and Kentucky wasn’t.

A jumper from Andrew Nembhard made it 59-41 with 11:43 remaining, and at that point, the O’Connell Center was in full-on party mode. But the fans forgot one minor detail: Mike White, who had already blown one sixteen point lead against Mississippi State this season and nearly blown another against Arkansas, was still the Gators’ coach. And sure enough, the unthinkable happened.

Having had a good amount of success with the 3-2 zone against Georgia- the second worst team in the SEC- White evidently decided that it would work against Kentucky, too. And for awhile, it did. But what happened next was so easily predictable that I had inadvertently predicted it in my Georgia recap article. Toward the end of the recap, I wrote:

“But this Gator basketball team still has so many questions to answer before it becomes wise to objectively trust them. For example, what’s White’s next move if he deploys the zone and the opponent simply shoots over it?”

Down 59-41, Kentucky began to pick the zone apart. First, Tyrese Maxey found a cutting Nick Richards for a dunk. Moments later, Nate Sestina put up a layup, which missed, but then he outmuscled several Gators down low to grab the rebound for an easy putback. And on the Cats’ next two possessions, Maxey and Keion Brooks, respectively, spotted up for uncontested threes to cut the lead down to ten with 8:39 to go.

This is where a good coach would have shifted back into a man defense. Not only was Kentucky heating up from outside, which is the 3-2 zone’s natural weakness, but the Wildcats were also able to slice through the zone for easy buckets in the paint. But White apparently didn’t see the problem, and stayed with the zone.

After Scottie Lewis converted an and-one, Johnny Juzang answered back with yet another Kentucky three, this one from the corner. Because he was stuck in the zone, Keyontae Johnson was a step late, and Juzang had a clear look. That cut the lead back down to 64-54 with eight minutes to go.

Now fast forward a few minutes later, to when Florida had a 66-59 lead with just under five minutes to go. Keion Brooks took the ball just outside the three point line, faked out Scottie Lewis, the help from Johnson came too late and so Brooks was able to cruise down to the “Billy Donovan Court” logo just outside the lane and knock down an easy floater. That trimmed the lead to five.

A few moments later, Brooks roasted the Gators’ zone yet again. Starting near the corner just outside the three point line, he easily drove right through it to the SEC logo in the paint, turned to face the hoop, jumped forward and converted an easy eight foot jumper. By now, the Gators’ lead was down to a single point with a minute to go.

Naturally, Florida came away empty handed on its next possession, and now Kentucky had one final possession down 70-69. Still locked in the zone defense, Florida could only watch as Brooks tore down the baseline for the go-ahead layup- which missed. But due to the zone defense, nobody accounted for EJ Montgomery- who was standing on the three point line- who then trotted in unimpeded to grab the board and bail out his teammate with an easy putback with twelve seconds remaining. And Kentucky had its first lead of the game- which held thanks to Andrew Nembhard’s desperation three rimming out.

The interesting thing is that had Nembhard’s three gone down, and Florida had survived another White coaching blunder due to a miraculous buzzer like they did in the Sweet 16 against Wisconsin three years ago, all would have been forgiven among the few supporters in the fan base he still has left. White would have been hailed as a genius for drawing up the perfect game winning set play, and for picking Nembhard to take the final shot.

But let’s take this moment to be honest with ourselves: it wouldn’t have done a damn thing to change who and what Mike White is. White still stubbornly remained in that zone defense- despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggested against it- as Kentucky sliced it to pieces possession after possession. And yes, at some point talented teams are bound to get hot and hit all kinds of shots, because that’s simply how basketball works. But White was never ready to make the right adjustments to it, left his team ill-prepared to defend against the onslaught, and then for a finale, he threw his players under the bus:

Certainly, White is frustrated. But you know what’s really frustrating? Having a mediocre basketball coach who wins at a clip just high enough to merit not getting fired, win a big game or two here or there to buy some goodwill with his supporters (and ammunition for the really dumb ones), repeatedly blow winnable games with the worst tactical decision making imaginable and keep this program grounded in purgatory. It’s gotten so bad that I’m literally predicting the manner in which he’ll lose the next game in advance.

It’s at this point that White’s remaining supporters use two data points to defend him, because that’s the inevitable result of going into detail about his incompetence. He’s won five NCAA Tournament games in his first four years? Good for him; significantly weaker basketball programs FSU, Oregon, Texas Tech and Purdue all have more in that time span, and Auburn is more likely than not to pass Florida in that category in the next few weeks. He’s won 20 games a year in each of his first four- and with just one more win this year, five seasons? Cool; let’s take a walk across campus and see how many other of the Gators’ athletics programs hang banners or signs for reaching a mediocre regular season benchmark. Oh, that’s right- none of them do, because at the University of Florida, banners and signs are hung as a result of winning SEC Championships and reaching the final stages of the NCAA Tournament, because those are the expectations. And Mike White has added zero banners to the O’Connell Center rafters since he’s won the SEC zero times and taken his teams to zero Final Fours.

It’s also worth pointing out that around this time last year, whether or not Mike White was the best fit for the Florida Gators was a healthy debate. It wasn’t like this was always an open and shut case, because things did look very promising after his second year, and there was still legitimate reason to be hopeful after the 2017-18 season before things started to get murky in his fourth year. I even wrote this piece defending him after the end of the 2018-19 season, and that was a sequel to a similar piece I’d written at the end of the 2017-18 season.

Now, though, we’re well past the point where this is a legitimate debate. As we near the end of Mike White’s fifth season, the strongest remaining argument in his favor is that he just needs more time before he can really take off. But that simply isn’t how it works at the University of Florida. Dan Mullen didn’t seem to need any time to win back to back New Year’s Six Bowls. Kevin O’Sullivan had Florida’s baseball team in three College World Series in his first five years. Similarly, Tim Walton had Gator softball in three Women’s College World Series in his first five years. Mary Wise had the Florida volleyball team in the Final Four in two of her first three years. Becky Burleigh won a national championship with Florida soccer in her fourth year. And I’m not even going to mention how time wasn’t an issue for Billy Donovan, Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer.

With all that in mind: the last three seasons of Gator basketball have supplied the rational Florida fans with a surplus of box scores and game film that prove beyond a reasonable doubt that White is not the long term answer for this position and that it’s a matter of when, not if he’ll be fired. It’s not an issue of if; it’s an issue of when.

And when that day comes- whenever it may be- you can be sure that this collapse against Kentucky will have a spot in the case against him that was crafted along with his walking papers.

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