Florida coach Mike White isn’t ducking responsibility for his team’s recent struggles.
The Gators have hit another rut in their up-and-down 2017-18 season, losing a pair of winnable games last week against two teams near the bottom of the SEC standings. In both losses, the Gators squandered double-digit leads in the second half, at home against Georgia and on the road against Vanderbilt.
Overall, UF (17-10, 8-6 SEC) has lost four of its last six games and five of its last seven SEC games after a 6-1 start in league play. Considered an NCAA Tournament lock two weeks ago, the Gators are now in danger of missing the dance for the third time in their last four seasons.
All of this has led to fan angst on social media and message boards directed toward White, who just last season won SEC coach of the year honors and guided UF to its ninth Elite Eight appearance in school history.
“It’s all on us,” White said. “Every year you go into a season and your ultimate goal is for, obviously, to get better every day and take it one day at a time, but at the end of the year you want to at least be close, if not all the way to reaching your team’s potential. It’s been a roller-coaster ride; we’re just very, very inconsistent, offensively and defensively, rebounding it.
“The games aren’t surprises to us, because it’s what we see every day in practice. It’s been a very, very unique year. A lot to learn from, a lot I don’t understand right now. Obviously I haven’t pushed all the right buttons.”
Asked for a message to give to fans frustrated by UF’s recent play, White responded: “If we don’t play well and our fans aren’t real excited about that, that’s good. That’s the expectation here. That’s what we sign up for. It’s the University of Florida, there’s a standard here and that’s one of the reasons we want to be here. All I can tell you is we’re going to keep swinging, period. I’m going to get after our guys today in film. I’m going to watch the last 15 minutes of defensive mistakes, a lot of them in transition, a couple of them free throw line blockouts.”
The good news? Florida can salvage its season if it can pick up a few statement wins in the final two weeks against the most challenging part of its SEC schedule. Florida next plays Wednesday night against No. 19 Tennessee, then hosts No. 12 Auburn on Saturday. Florida would likely need to win at least two of its final four games to feel secure about an NCAA Tournament bid heading into the SEC Tournament. After this week, Florida will close regular-season play with games Feb. 27 at Alabama and March 3 at home against Kentucky.
Florida is 4-1 against ranked teams this season, but has lost nine games in which it has been favored, setting up its precarious position down the stretch. The biggest issue for Florida right now is finishing — from finishing shots to finishing off games. White counted six point-blank layups that were missed during the Vanderbilt loss. Florida has squandered five double-digit leads in the second half and lost four of those games, against Duke, Clemson, Georgia and Vanderbilt. The Gators also failed to hold a 12-point second-half lead against LSU, but rallied to win down the stretch.
“We did a decent job the first 20 minutes again the other night,” White said. “We just, for whatever reason, can’t sustain it. Looking at the clock, it’s almost over — there’s 15 minutes left in the game, guys. My goodness. The whole mentality there should have been let’s get up 13, let’s get up 15, let’s get another stop. That was last year’s group. The competitiveness level is so different. It’s about holding on and hoping we can win by 1. That can’t be what it’s about.”
In three seasons at UF, White is 65-34 overall and 31-19 in SEC games. This year, Florida has been hamstrung by lack of frontcourt depth. The Gators were hoping senior center John Egbunu would be back by now, but the return of the 6-foot-11, 265-pound big man remains in doubt as he continues to rehab from a torn ACL. Freshman forward Chase Johnson has been out since early December after suffering his second concussion in a six-week span, while freshman center Isaiah Stokes has had weight issues in recovering from ACL surgery.
As a result, Florida has struggled to score in the paint and ranks last in the SEC in rebounding margin (minus-1.1).
“He’s done just about everything you can do,” Florida junior center Kevarrius Hayes said of White. “I feel like at this point it’s on us, as players, to kind of get it together for him — and for ourselves, to see exactly how far we can go as a team.”
FREE THROWS: White said it wasn’t the plan for Hayes to foul Vanderbilt guard Joe Toye with four seconds left on the shot clock and 10 seconds left on the game clock with Florida down 69-68 in its eventual 71-68 loss at Vanderbilt. Toye, a 62.8 percent free throw shooter, made both free throws. “The plan was if Toye got it early in the possession in the backcourt, we were going to foul him immediately after they got it past half(court),” White said. “I liked our energy. We had them extend it a little bit and obviously after you’ve defended that long, we don’t want to foul. Just a tough one.” Hayes said he was going for a steal on the play. “I was just trying to get the ball away from him,” Hayes said. “I tried to steal the ball and it kind of happened at the wrong time to foul. It was a mistake.” … White said sophomore center Gorjok Gak didn’t play against Vanderbilt due to matchups, not due to knee problems which have hampered him on and off this season. “There’s so much parity with him and Dontay (Bassett),” White said. “Going into the game, it’s a staff decision. First big off the bench. I take votes from the staff, I went with it. We thought Dontay was the guy, probably based on the physicality of Vandy’s bigs: Ejike (Obinna), you know the girth there. And Dontay, he’s worked hard, he’s gotten better. He’s had some good practices.”