Florida basketball: Mike White says return to O'Dome will feel like 'Twilight Zone'

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Jan 4, 2023; Athens, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Mike White coaches guards Mardrez McBride (13) and Terry Roberts (0) against the Auburn Tigers during the second half at Stegeman Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mike White expects a mix of emotions when he returns to the O'Connell Center on Saturday coaching Georgia against Florida for the first time since leaving Gainesville last March.

A former Ole Miss standout player, White compared it to going to Oxford, Miss., for the first time as Florida coach during the 2015-16 season.

"It presented some emotional challenges, of course," White said. "It presented some of that external noise that you preach to your guys that you've got to avoid to have success in this league, to have success in the next game.

"You know I'm excited about getting down there and seeing some loved ones, some family, some friends. It will be weird, it will be like the "Twilight Zone' really at times for sure, but when that thing is tipped, I'll be locked in, as much as I've been locked in for each game, each practice, just to try to help these young men be the best that they can be."

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Florida Gators head coach Mike White talks with guard Phlandrous Fleming Jr. (24) during a game against LSU at Exactech Arena in Gainesville Jan 12, 2022.  The Gators dropped their third straight SEC game with this loss to LSU 64-58.

White went 142-88 at Florida over seven seasons, leading the Gators to four NCAA Tournament appearances. The high point of White's tenure came in his second season, when the Chris Chiozza-led Gators went 27-9, finished second in the SEC and reached the Elite Eight before falling to South Carolina at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

But White was unable to lead the Gators past the Round of 32 in his next three NCAA Tournament trips and was unable to win an SEC championship, as league programs such as Tennessee, Auburn, Arkansas and Alabama grew in strength and devoted more resources to basketball during his tenure.

Asked to reflect on what he accomplished with the Gators, White demurred: "We were honored to have the opportunity to represent that university just as we are to have the opportunity to represent Bulldog Nation. Not many people are as blessed to have the opportunity to coach in two amazing places like this and I hope we play well tomorrow and that's it. I'm anxious to see some loved ones tomorrow in Gainesville."

White has led Georgia (11-3, 1-0 SEC) to a strong start. The Bulldogs, the worst team in the SEC last season at 6-26, have won four straight and are coming off a 76-64 upset of No. 22 Auburn.

Struggling Gators still looking for first SEC victory

The Gators (7-7, 0-2 SEC), meanwhile, are still seeking their first conference win and have lost three straight under first-year coach Todd Golden. Six current players on Florida's roster were recruited and coached by White, including preseason All-SEC center Colin Castleton, who leads the Gators in scoring (14.9 ppg) and rebounding (7.4 rpg).

"Colin Castleton is one of the best players in the league of course and a guy who I care deeply about and always root for obviously other than tomorrow," White said. "We hope we can do a pretty good job of him. (Florida) has got other good pieces, they've got shooting wings, they've got athleticism and depth and picked up good players out of the portal in the spring so they are very good.

"Their record is misleading. They've played a very challenging schedule and they can beat anybody in our league."