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Gators basketball notebook: Florida closing in on season-opener

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida coach Mike White is getting his team prepared for the season opener next week. [File]

There’s less than 10 days until the Florida men’s basketball team opens the season Nov. 25 against UMass Lowell, the Gators continue to progress toward normalcy in all aspects.

What started with individual workouts as players reintegrated from quarantine has become full-team practice sessions, resulting in improved conditioning continually. With UF coach Mike White expecting to run an up-tempo offense based on the personnel available, the next nine days will be critical when it comes to getting into game-shape. 

“We’re in better condition, as I’m sure most teams are as you get consistent numbers over a consistent period of time there. We’ve got 10 to 12 healthy bodies that are out of quarantine, and you can go an hour-and-a-half, two hours there for a string of days. It only leads to your wind getting a little bit better, both offensively and defensively. Probably our biggest area of improvement as of late is taking a little bit better care of the basketball, making a little bit better decisions as we’re playing a little bit more up-tempo,” White said last week. “That’s, again, down the road as we play other opponents other than ourselves, who are, we’re pressuring ourselves a little bit more than we have in the past but we’ll see how fast certain teams allow us to play and what our tempo will be exactly, but I’m pretty confident it will be faster than these last couple years and, again, making better decisions. It’s a transition, it’s a process to become productive in what we’re doing, because it’s obviously different.”

White has developed a reputation for his frankness and transparent approach to answering questions, and he hasn’t shied away from citing Florida’s injury issues and available personnel as to why the Gators as of late have ranked statistically as one of the SEC’s slower teams on offense. 

“We just got away from it based on the makeup of our roster and some injuries and some depth issues. So you know we’ve been through it before, not only here, but in our last stop as a staff. Most of us have been together for a while. The tempo between drills is a little bit quicker. The defensive pressure is extended a little bit more, a lot more in certain cases,” White said. “Again, it’s a process, it’s something that we’re going through to where any change takes time to perfect what you’re doing and really you’re talking about college basketball offenses are never perfect. You’re always striving for it, but will it ever be perfect? I don’t think so. But it will certainly be better in a month than it is today. We’re better offensively now than we were last week.”

Lewis making leaps

Florida had the fewest nominees for the media’s All-SEC list as just sophomore Scottie Lewis and senior Keyontae Johnson made the cut. Expectations undoubtedly are high for Johnson after making the All-SEC first team last season, but there hasn’t been nearly as much buzz regarding Lewis’ potential and expectations going into the 2020-21 campaign. 

The former five-star prospect out of Ranney School (N.J.) averaged 8.5 points and 3.6 rebounds per game as a 19-year-old freshman with the Gators, and there’s reason to believe the best is yet to come for the ultra-athletic Lewis as Florida looks to push the pace on both ends this season. 

Asked if Lewis faces pressure now that he has collegiate experience, White praised the 6-foot-5 playmaker’s progression while insisting there’s less of an onus on performing as there is on reaching expectations. 

“We don’t talk a lot about pressure. I don’t know if he’s feeling pressure or not. If he is, I hope it’s a healthy pressure and channels it the right way. Sometimes pressure can be good, sometimes it can be bad for certain individuals. I think that he is a really confident kid. I think he knows he has an opportunity to have a breakout sophomore year. He’s really worked. His maturity level in practice has increased immensely from 12 months ago. He’s playing like a sophomore and not a freshman, especially offensively,” White said.

“And with his other aspects of maturity, in terms of consistently and approach to practice and preparation, managing your emotions, all those things. And he’s not the only guy, but he’s made probably as big a jump — knock on wood, as we go against tomorrow, and who knows with a lot of these freshmen and sophomores. But he’s been pretty good for about a week; this past week in particular he’s probably played his best basketball as a Gator.”

UF walk-on had tough choice

For many, a chance to walk-on the Florida men’s basketball program would be the opportunity of a lifetime, and for UF’s latest walk-on, Jack May, it was just that — but that doesn’t mean the decision was necessarily an easy one. 

Jack’s father is current Florida Atlantic University head coach, Dusty May, who was an assistant coach under White for three seasons in Gainesville and four seasons at Louisiana Tech prior to taking the Owls’ head coaching job and relocating to Boca Raton. 

So when it came time for the 6-foot-4 Jack to make a decision on his collegiate future, he was enticed by both FAU and UF. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a Gator since I lived here in Gainesville when my dad worked here for UF,” May said. “I was deciding whether to walk-on at UF or at FAU, and I just decided I wanted to go to Gainesville and try to walk-on at UF. My dad talked to coach White, and it worked out, fortunately.” 

White still had to scout him first, however. Fortunately for May, his St. Andrews team was in the midst of vying for their first Class 3A state championship, which they captured March 7 in Lakeland with a 57-50 over top-seeded Jacksonville-Andrew Jackson. In the game’s critical final stretch, May had a steal and scored twice to help the Scots secure the title.

“He saw film of me during my senior year, and that’s when it all happened. I talked to Coach White and Coach (Jordan) Mincy late in my senior year, around the state championship game,” said May. 

Yet White said he was aware of Jack’s potential far sooner than that, considering their familiarity from an early age. 

“Jack was a no-brainer for us. I’ve evaluated him since, what is he, 18? Maybe nine years old, He’s in my backyard in Ruston, Louisiana, dunking on my twins. He’s a guy I’ve watched develop as a kid and a player, and I’ve played a lot of ball with him over the years and always made sure he was on my team. He’s tough as nails. He’s got a nice stroke. Culturally, again, a really good addition to this program.”

On the off chance one forgot, the COVID-19 pandemic could wreak havoc on rosters this coming season; not a positive, undoubtedly, but it begs the question of whether or not a team could be forced to play a walk-on at a moment’s notice. It’s certainly a possibility, and it’s one White has frequently communicated to May and fellow walk-on Alex Klatsky. Whether or not they’ll be ready may fall on their shoulders, however.

“We’ve given them that message a bunch. How well they receive it remains to be seen,” White said. “These guys need to understand that anything can happen this season. We’re going to see some crazy stuff. Our 15th guy might be starting five games in. We might have one guy who posts some DNPs, then suddenly plays 30 minutes a game. We all have to be prepared. It’s a lesson in life outside the lines, as well.”