Whitley: Credit Gators for being game short of Sweet 16 in season full of adversity

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Florida guard Tyree Appleby walks off the court with teammates Sunday night after the Gators' loss to Oral Roberts in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis.

Let's get this out of the way right away. Mike White is not going to be fired as Florida's basketball coach.

Given what the Gators had to deal with this season, White doesn't deserve to be fired as Florida's basketball coach.

But given how the season ended, it's fair to ask if Florida is reaching the point of diminishing returns with its basketball program. If you witnessed the final 10 minutes of Sunday night's 81-78  loss to Oral Roberts, you'd have to say yes.

Florida led by 11 points, which pretty much meant the Golden Eagles had the Gators right where they wanted them. It set the stage for a stirring March Madness comeback, the kind that turns an Oral Roberts into a national sweetheart.

Oral Roberts forward Kevin Obanor drives to the basket ahead of Florida forward Anthony Duruji, left, during the second half Sunday of the second round of the NCAA tournament at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.

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"The last time we won a game in the NCAA tournament was 1964," forward Kevin Obanor said, "and now we're in the Sweet 16. It's just mind-blowing."

Their last NCAA win was actually in 1974, but the effect was the same. Based on the social media reaction, a lot of heads exploded around Gainesville and surrounding fan communities.

You don't hire and fire coaches based on fan reaction. If Florida did, it would have hired Dayton's Archie Miller instead of White in 2016.

A year later, he ended up at Indiana. And last week, Miller ended up on the unemployment line after leading the Hoosiers to zero NCAA tournaments.

White's been to four consecutive Big Dances with the Gators. They made the Elite Eight in the first one and won all their subsequent first-round games.

They haven't made it beyond the first weekend, but Sunday's game had a different vibe. Ohio State was supposed to be in the way, then the Golden Eagles upset the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes.

Oral Roberts was determined and dangerous. It jacks up 3-pointers as proficiently as any team this side of the NBA. But there's a reason only one 15th-seeded team had ever made a Sweet 16 before Sunday night.

They don't have the talent or depth to get that far. The Gators had more of both, and a Sweet 16 berth would have made this a season to savor.

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Who would have thunk it in December, when Keyontae Johnson collapsed and everyone feared the worst?

If the Gators had won Sunday and moved further into the national spotlight, White would have been hailed as a miracle worker.

It would have silenced critics who've devoted countless Internet hours to discussing Florida's real and perceived shortcomings under White. The inconsistency, the late-game swoons, the X-and-O blunders, the lack of being Billy Donovan.

Instead of all that being forgotten, it all gained new life. You don't fire a guy based on one game, but the flaws we saw Sunday were nothing new.

The Gators led 67-56 with 9:46 left in the game, and the analytics said they had a 94.1% chance of winning. That might have dropped had the analysts known White was about to tell his team to slow the pace and play deliberate half-court offense.

“We were tired," he said. "These guys get you in rotation. I was hoping slowing it down would help us make better decisions."

The Golden Eagles kept scoring and Florida didn't. How does Tre Mann go the last 17 minutes without a bucket.

"I just missed shots," he said.

How did Florida run out of timeouts with 2:46 left? You could also wonder why Osayi Osifo was in the game with 3:11 remaining.

Knowing he's a 50% free-throw shooter, the Golden Eagles intentionally fouled Osifo. Sure enough, he missed the front end of a 1-and-1.

Obanor scored to give the Golden Eagles the lead. They were looking like a team of March destiny, while Florida was merely looking desperate.

The Gators went the final 2:29 without scoring. And yes, turnovers were a problem.

They had 20. Two or three fewer and Florida might still be playing. But that's just not how this team rolled.

"To me it was a mentality that this team, unfortunately, never fully embraced the importance, unfortunately, of each possession," White said.

And who's fault was that?

The players, for sure. But getting players to fully embrace things is why White makes about $3 million a year.

Despite all the on-court flaws, he earned his paycheck this year. Every team faces adversity, but few have ever had to stop in the middle of a game and wonder if their best player was dying on the court.

We'll never know the emotional toll the Johnson saga took on this team. The fact Florida ended up one game short of the Sweet 16 is a credit to the players and coaches.

White's won 62% of his games at Florida. He's a solid coach and citizen, but has he reached his ceiling in Gainesville? Is Florida destined to be a mid-seeded NCAA tournament team?

Is that good enough?

This season, it should be. Next season, it might not be.

Especially if next season ends like this one just did.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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