By Dustin Kent
GateHouse Media Services
PANAMA CITY BEACH — It has been a pretty good year for Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White: 27 victories in his second season with the Gators, a memorable run through the NCAA Tournament to the Elite 8, and the honor of being named SEC Coach of the Year.
White ventured west on Tuesday evening to talk about the last season and the future of the Florida program to local fans in a Gator Gathering Event put on by the Panhandle Gator Club at the Panama City Beach Senior Center. There was plenty of positive news to share after a breakout season for the Gators under White, returning UF to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 and coming within one victory of a trip to the Final Four.
“Last year’s team was a special group,” he said. “It started in the locker room with the cohesiveness we had, the connection we had amongst our team members. We had four really good seniors that were about the right things. It was a team that worked really hard and sacrificed a lot. It was a really close-knit group, so it was a really cool thing to be a part of.”
Florida’s run to the Elite 8 featured perhaps the best, or at least most dramatic, game of the tournament with junior point guard Chris Chiozza beating Wisconsin with a running 3-point buzzer beater to give the Gators an 84-83 overtime victory.
It’s a shot sure to be replayed for years to come as one of the most memorable buzzer beaters in tournament history, and a shot that White admits to have watched again a time or two since the season ended.
“Every time we have a recruit on campus, we show it at least once,” he said. “When we show it, the replay is played twice, so multiply it by three … oh, 150 times or so.”
Chiozza returns for his senior season to assume the starting point guard role vacated by Kasey Hill, though the Gators will have some work to do this offseason to be able to match last season’s success next year. They lose four of their top six scorers to graduation or the NBA Draft and will likely have to wait until January to get back starting center Jon Egbunu, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in February.
UF does return top scorer KeVaughn Allen along with Chiozza, brings in a top 20 recruiting class featuring four new players, and adds prized graduate transfer guard Egor Koulechov from Rice. White said he likes his team heading into next season but that it’s too early to say what the next Gator group can be.
“Every year going into the next year it’s about being as good as that particular team can be,” he said. “Most coaches talk about maxing out or certain terminology that equates to that, just being as good as you can be individually and as a team. Last year, I don’t know if any team totally maxes out 100 percent, but we were pretty close if we didn’t.
“Going into this year it’s the same thing. If we can make strides in the preseason as individuals and have a similar connection in the locker room and between the lines, the same work ethic and all those intangibles last year’s team had, could we be an Elite 8 team again? Maybe, who knows? Maybe we can be even better than that, but we’ve got our work cut out for us and we’re a ways away from those things right now.”
Despite the personnel losses, some media outlets have Florida projected as a top 10 team next season and some even as a potential No. 1 seed in next year’s NCAA Tournament. White said he wants to make sure to remind the returning and incoming Gator players just how much work lays ahead before the hype machine doesn’t get out of hand.
“You can’t right now when they’re all out of town, but trust me, we will give them all reality when we get back,” he said. “Not that it needs to be negative, but it doesn’t matter what anyone says about our team. The exterior expectation has nothing to do with how well we’ll play, how many games we’ll win, or anything like that.
“Just like last year’s lack of expectation had nothing to do with going to the Elite 8. It will be really important for us to add that perspective for our guys, especially our new guys, because we’ll be reliant upon a few new guys for sure.”
White certainly has the UF program pointed north after missing the tournament in his first year as head coach and has proven himself a worthy successor to legendary coach Billy Donovan. However, White said he has never concerned himself with comparisons to the future Hall of Fame coach Donovan.
“It’s not a challenge, it’s been exciting,” he said. “Somebody had to follow coach Donovan, of course. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I never look at it like I’m comparing myself to him in some way. It’s about doing the best job you can do with your current team trying to be as good as you can possibly be and helping each individual on your team trying to be the best person and player he can be.
“When the media makes comparisons or fans want to make comparisons or whatever, none of it matters,” he said. “It’s noise, it doesn’t matter. Players get noise, I get noise, you filter the noise and you move on. There are more important things to focus on or we won’t do a good job with the opportunity we have.”
Dustin Kent is a sports writer at the Panama City News-Herald. Contact him at 850-747-5065 or firstname.lastname@example.org.