ST. LOUIS — Former Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy has always thought highly of Florida coach Mike White.
White worked under Kennedy as an assistant at Ole Miss for five seasons (2006-11) before taking his first head coaching job at Louisiana Tech. When White was hired at Florida in 2015, Kennedy was one of the first to point out that White would not back down from the challenge of replacing a future Hall of Fame coach in Billy Donovan.
Working as a guest analyst for the SEC Network in SEC Tournament coverage this week, Kennedy said White has performed as he expected. White has won at least 20 games in all three of his seasons at UF and is about to lead the Gators to their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Last season, White led the Gators to their ninth trip to the Elite Eight in school history.
“Mike’s done a great job,” Kennedy said. “Last year, with that run to the Elite Eight, it allows him to exhale because obviously you are walking in behind a legend in Billy Donovan, expectation is high and rightfully so with that program. And I thought last year Mike did a great job and this year, he loses some valuable pieces and they are playing well.”
Florida is at 20-12 after losing to Arkansas 80-72 in Friday night’s SEC tournament quarterfinals. The Gators have reached 20 wins despite losing freshman forward Chase Johnson to two concussions and not getting senior center John Egbunu and freshman center Isaiah Stokes back from rehabbing torn ACLs.
“Obviously they are a group that’s dependent on making perimeter shots,” Kennedy said. “When they are making perimeter shots they can beat anyone in the country and they showed that throughout the course of the season.”
The next step for White will be to show that he can sustain success when the last Donovan recruit, senior point guard Chris Chiozza, leaves the program. Florida does have a five-star incoming point guard prospect to perhaps replace Chiozza in Class of 2018 6-foot-4 signee Andrew Nembhard. Two other incoming 2018 freshman signees — 6-2 shooting guard Noah Locke amd 6-5 swingman Keyontae Johnson — are top 100 national prospects.
“Chiozza is a guy along with Kasey Hill prior, that did a good job from a point guard role of distributing the ball and creating offense,” Kennedy said. “That’s obviously important. But Mike is a smart guy. He’s always had good guards and he’s been able to adapt to his personnel.”
Kennedy said he’s enjoyed working on TV the past two days. The former 12-year Ole Miss coach first announced he was stepping down at the end of the season in early February, then left the team Feb. 19 because he felt it was becoming a distraction. Tony Madlock served as acting coach for Ole Miss the rest of the season. Kennedy’s 245 wins are the most in Ole Miss history.
“You know how long that will stand in,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We’ll all be dead. Everybody in this room will be dead before someone gets as many wins as he gets there.”
“It’s been great these last two days,” Kennedy said. “Good guys. And it’s a lot less stressful than standing up on that other side of the floor, I promise you.”
But Kennedy hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching next season.
“I don’t know what the options are going to be,” Kennedy said. “I enjoy this (TV). I had a great run at Ole Miss, 12 years as a head coach in the SEC. It was a tremendous blessing for me and I’ll just kind of see what my options are and what it looks like moving forward.”
Mississippi State announced freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon was OK after taking a scary fall and being taken off the court on a stretcher during Tennessee’s 62-59 quarterfinal win over the Bulldogs.
Weatherspoon actually took a pair of blows, the second coming when his older brother, Mississippi State junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, landed on him after getting fouled on a basket attempt in transition.
SEC coordinator of officials Mark Whitehead released a statement as to whether officials should have stopped play when the younger Weatherspoon was first hurt.
“The play on which Nick Weatherspoon was injured unfolded in a rapid sequence of events after Nick initially fell under the Mississippi State basket,” Whitehead said. “The officials did not recognize Nick was injured until after the transition that led to the completion of play where, unfortunately, he remained on the floor.”
The balance of the SEC during the regular season has carried over into the conference tournament. The four tournament games Thursday were decided by 11 points, the closest four-game round in SEC Tournament history.
Overall, six of the first 10 games in the tournament were decided by 5 points or less.
“The league should be proud,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “There’s not another — I watched the 8-9 game yesterday. It was Texas A&M and Alabama and the 8-9 game, there were pros out there. I mean, there are a lot of pros out there and that just tells you how good this league is. That was a great game and it’s been a great tournament.”
The biggest star through the first two games SEC Tournament has been Alabama freshman point guard Collin Sexton, who has led the ninth-seed Tide to an improbable run to the SEC Tournament semifinals.
The 6-foot-3 Sexton had 27 points and 5 assists, including the game-winning finger roll at the buzzer, in Alabama’s 71-70 win over Texas A&M. Sexton followed that up on Friday with 31 points, 7 rebounds and 1 assist in the Tide’s 81-63 rout of Auburn. The two wins have improved Alabama’s record to 19-15 and likely secured an NCAA Tournament bid that didn’t look promising going into the tournament. Alabama had closed the regular season losing five straight games.
“We knew when we came in this tournament, we had to win games, and we wanted to because we have a lot to prove,” Sexton said. “I feel like everybody counted us out.”
On the hot seat
Georgia coach Mark Fox played possum when asked about his job security following UGA’s 62-49 loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournaments. Fox has led the Bulldogs to just two NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons, and patience in the fanbase is running thin.
“I’m sure that (athletic director) Greg (McGarity) and I will meet at some point and have conversations about how to continue to improve and grow our program,” Fox said. “I’m not sure when those conversations will occur.”
Calipari made a case for Georgia keeping Fox, alluding vaguely to the FBI probe involving illicit payments in college basketball: “There’s a lot of stuff going on out there, stuff that’s not going on at Georgia. They’re in good hands. That has to mean something.”