Mike White pleased with Gators' passing, shot-selection in first practice

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida men's basketball coach Mike White set to begin his seventh season in Gainesville.

Florida men's basketball coach Mike White received his first taste of the seven newcomers in an organized practice setting at Tuesday's first preseason practice.

NCAA rules passed in June of 2020 allowed teams to schedule four hours per week of workouts during the offseason, meaning White already has a head start of a couple months when it comes to familiarizing himself with the Gators’ latest additions. 

It’s no secret, however, the competition ramped up Tuesday inside the Florida basketball complex, and White came away impressed with the team’s first official practice. 

Now in his seventh year at Florida, White is cautiously optimistic about the team’s potential on the defensive end, saying the Gators possess several capable defenders, although there’s much work to be done when it comes to playing defense as a unit. 

“I really liked the energy out there today, the level of competitive spirit was pretty high. Not a lot of drama down there. Pretty good level of chemistry for Day 1. Serious approach, pretty good focus. We have a lot to learn about our system and each other,” White said. “We’ve got some new pieces, of course, like most teams. But I like what we could be defensively. We’ve got three or four guys who could be really good one-on-one defenders. We’ve got to become better defensively as a team, as a unit, playing together.”

The Gators added four experienced transfers — Brandon McKissic, Myreon Jones, Phlandrous Fleming, Jr. and CJ Felder — to go along with freshmen Kowacie Reeves, Jr., Elijah Kennedy and Tuon Gatkek. Considering the latter two signees are expected to take a development year in Gainesville, the majority of the contributions from the additions will come from UF’s additions via the transfer portal. 

With an increase in the amount of experience the Gators have out there on the practice court, the team’s shot-selection and decision-making with the basketball are already standing out, White said. 

It’s premature to jump to any conclusions, but White has reason to believe this group of Gators are collectively “maybe the best passing team since we’ve been here.” 

“Offensively, in these past few abbreviated practices, combined with this one long one, I’ve liked our shot selection for this early. Guys aren’t really pressing,” White said. “I know it’s early on, but I’d be surprised if it’s not in the top two or three teams we’ve had here – arguably the best passing team. Several guys not only see it, but are pretty willing (to pass).”

White also expects the Gators to be much-improved when it comes to creating second-chance opportunities on the offensive end after adding pieces to the frontcourt; Fleming Jr., recorded multiple double-doubles at Charleston Southern despite his 6-foot-5 stature, and Felder averaged nearly six rebounds a contest as a sophomore with Boston College. 

But don’t count out UF’s returning big men from last season.

Jason Jitoboh continues to work his way back into playing shape after dealing with another foot injury prior to last season which undid much of the improvements the 6-foot-11 forward made in the offseason with his conditioning, though his advanced basketball IQ and skill set make him a player to watch this season if he can work his way back into shape. 

“He’s had a good Fall. He’s still working to get himself in great condition. It’s the biggest factor for him by far and away. He’s got a lot of stuff in his arsenal that’s hard to teach and coach, some stuff that he’s good at,” White said of Jitoboh. “He’s a really quick thinker, he absorbs coaching like a sponge, and he’s really skilled. He’s becoming a better passer. He’s playing a little bit more on the perimeter than he has in the first couple of years, showcasing his ability to read the floor and pass it with either hand a little bit. He’s got to be able to change ends, of course, so he can be more of that presence with deep-post touches offensively and of course with the wall-ups and the shot-altering at the rim defensively. Conditioning is it for him.”

And then there’s Florida’s main man in the post, senior Colin Castleton. 

The DeLand native withdrew from the NBA Draft and returned to UF for his senior season of collegiate basketball following a breakout junior campaign in Gainesville. Castleton averaged 12.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game last season, leading him to test the NBA waters after playing in just 44 games through two seasons at Michigan. 

Castleton returned to his home state with plenty of information on aspects of his game where he needs to improve – now comes implementing what he’s learned. 

“It was great. I cherished every moment. The layovers, the connecting flights, the missed flights, whatever they may be. It was great. I enjoyed it a lot. I met a lot of great people. I learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t go through the process. I worked out for a bunch of different teams. I met a bunch of different NBA players and pros, watched them work out,” Castleton said of the pre-draft process. “I took a lot from how to be a pro and how to approach the game and certain things like that. For me, what I was told, basically just kind of obvious what I knew. Getting stronger, putting a little more weight on, getting a little more sturdy, show that I can stretch the floor and show a little bit more of my skill set.”

Castleton concluded each pre-draft workout by attempting 100 three-pointers. He typically sank between 60 and 65 each time. It wasn’t just for his own benefit, as the Gators plan on utilizing a five-out offense this season, meaning Casleton will play far more on the perimeter in addition to his low-post role. 

His shooting prowess remains a work-in-progress, though Castleton is confident his jumper will only further improve as the season creeps closer. 

“Honestly I still don’t think (my shot) is where it needs to be, if I’m being real. That’s just how I keep it, being real all the time. So, I think it’s not where it needs to be, but I’m still in the gym every day working on it, because that’s all I’m going to continue to do, because I’m confident in myself,” Casleton said. “The coaches believe in me, they tell me to shoot the ball when I’m open. I’m just going to go with that approach every day. And when the season comes around, if I’m open, I’m going to shoot the ball. That’s kind of where I’m at with that. This summer I worked on it a lot at my workouts, and I’m going to continue to have that same approach and just keep getting better, and just working on my mechanics and doing what I’m good at doing.”

One practice in and it’s clear there’s a lot of changes in Gainesville, even from established presences like Castleton – no surprise when considering there are more incoming players than returning players on the team’s roster. 

For the Gators to improve on last season’s campaign – individually and collectively – they can’t be comfortable with conventionality. 

“We’ve had guys in the past, and every team deals with it, where guys come off really good years and the question is, ‘What are we gonna be?’,” White said. “Are we going to be comfortable with what we accomplished individually? Or are you ready to take this thing to the next level?”