For a former consensus three-star prospect, freshman guard Mike Okauru hasn’t played like one as of late.
While the overall takeaway from Florida’s 72-69 overtime loss was the disappointing collapse down the stretch Wednesday against Georgia, Okauru’s continued emergence was one of the lone bright spots for coach Mike White.
With January being the time when the season begins to wear on most — especially freshmen unfamiliar with the rigors of college basketball — Okauru has instead found ways to overcome the adversity and turn himself into an important role player for the Gators down the final stretch.
“He’s been pretty good,” White said of Okauru. “I think he changed his overall attitude about three weeks ago and got out of the freshman blues, the ‘woe is me, why am I not playing more,’ like a lot of these guys go through.”
As Florida looks to bounce back with a 4 p.m. tip today at Vanderbilt (10-16, 4-9 SEC), White expects Okauru’s role to continue to expand — as long as he maintains the mindset that has helped him break through the wall.
“It just got to a point where I was just fed up with not playing. I just went into (Coach White’s) office and we just talked. He told me what I had to do to get on the court, and I’ve been working hard and doing that ever since,” Okauru said. “I just have to keep working and get better, and know that my time is coming.”
With just five games remaining in the regular season, Okauru and the Gators (17-9, 8-5) face a critical stretch that may make or break the season. Despite Vanderbilt’s subpar record, the Commodores have typically played up to Florida’s level, and their 3-point-centric attack can cause fits for a UF team that has struggled to defend from outside the arc this season.
“(These games) are very critical. We want to get wins,” Okauru said. “We’ve been an up-and-down team all year, so we just want to keep going upward instead.”
Before Wednesday’s 14-point performance, it had been 21 games since Okauru had scored in double digits for the Gators, and just his third such game all season. White said Okauru’s upswing began by altering the way he approaches the game from a mental aspect.
“He himself obtained a renewed, I guess, lack of entitlement. He really just got to work,” White said. “We had a conversation about, ‘Mike, if you work your butt off every single day, you’re going to have an opportunity. If you get three minutes and you wanted 10, you don’t go back in the tank the next day in practice.’ We’ve got to be grown men about this, this is the University of Florida. This isn’t high school basketball. I think that’s where a lot of freshmen have struggles, they feel like they deserve more. When he kind of rearranged his mindset in terms of ‘what do I need to do just to help this team,’ coincidentally he starts playing better. When it’s about the team, you play better. Our veterans, I think, for the most part understand that more so than our young guys. It’s a process, of course.”
For his part, Okauru is just looking to do whatever he can on the court — and in practice, where he’s learning from upperclassmen guards Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov how to maintain a groove when the going gets tough — to help Florida achieve its short-term goal: make another run in the NCAA Tournament.
“We don’t want to be in the NIT, for sure. We know what we have to do,” Okauru said. “We’ll get it done.”
Who: Florida (17-9, 8-5 SEC) vs. Vanderbilt (10-16, 4-9)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Memorial Gym, Nashville, Tenn.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
G Jalen Hudson;6-6;RJr.;15.1 ppg; 4.1 rpg
G Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;11.7 ppg;5.9 apg
G Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;14.2 ppg;6.8 rpg
F Keith Stone;6-8; RSo.;8.2 ppg;4.0 rpg
C Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; Jr.;5.2 ppg;5.2 rpg
G Riley LaChance;6-2;Sr.;12.9 ppg;3.2 rpg
G Saben Lee;6-2;Fr.;10.3 ppg;3.0 apg
G Maxwell Evans;6-2;Fr.;12.6 ppg;3.3 rpg
F Jeff Roberson;6-6;Sr.;16.2 ppg;7.2 rpg
C Ejikke Obinna;6-9;Fr.;9.6 ppg;3.1 rpg
Notes: Florida is 64-70 all time against Vanderbilt and 17-47 on the road against the Commodores. The Gators are 1-5 against Vanderbilt under Mike White. … White will be coaching his 50th SEC game on Saturday against Vanderbilt. The third-year UF coach is 31-18 in his first 49 SEC games at UF. … Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.) while ranking second in 3-pointers per game (9.1). … Florida junior guard KeVaughn Allen scored 19 points in UF’s 71-68 loss to Georgia, Allen’s highest-scoring output since a season-high 28 points against Arkansas on Jan. 18. Florida’s 35 bench points was its highest output in SEC play this season. … Allen leads the SEC in free throw shooting at 91.7 percent, followed by senior guard Egor Koulechov at 90.7 percent. … The Gators have been outrebounded in 8 of 13 SEC games this season. … Point guard Chris Chiozza leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.2-1), while ranking second in the league in steals (1.9 spg) and assists (5.9 apg). … Vanderbilt had scored 81 points in five of its last six games. … The Commodores are 10-5 at home this season.
— Kevin Brockway