Gene Frenette: Gators' hoops rebounds from Johnson ordeal into respectable team

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
Florida basketball coach Mike White, seen here on the sidelines in a victory against Kentucky at Rupp Arena, has done one of his better coaching jobs in bringing the Gators back from the medical ordeal of losing star player Keyontae Johnson into fourth place in the SEC.

There was a two-week stretch in December when the Comeback Team of the Year in college basketball wasn’t sure it could even muster up the resolve and energy to put a competitive team on the floor.

You’d never know by the way Florida has rebounded the past three months from the devastating loss of Keyontae Johnson -- playing without the SEC Preseason Player of the Year during a truncated COVID-19 season -- that the Gators were once filled with self-doubt.

Head coach Mike White felt it all those days leading up to Christmas, where three games were canceled and Florida went two weeks without practicing because they had to mentally process Johnson’s life-threatening ordeal. Everybody connected with the UF program questioned if they could pull themselves together to have a season.

Junior guard Noah Locke described that dark period this way, saying: “As it was, probably right after [the Johnson collapse] happened, within the weeks of us going through it, just how down we were. I wasn’t really sure exactly how we were going to come back to [basketball], even me mentally. I didn’t think we’d be able to get this far.”

Somehow, the Gators’ rebound has translated into a respectable record (13-7 and 9-6 in league play) and a fourth-place SEC standing going into Sunday’s final regular-season game at Tennessee. Whether that qualifies as a hoops miracle is subject to debate.

But at the very least, it’s a testament to White, his coaching staff and the players for rising up off the mat because nobody envisioned the Gators being an NCAA tournament lock once Johnson was out of the picture. Heck, they didn’t even know at that time if playing the rest of the season was in the cards.

Despite Wednesday’s 72-70 home loss to Missouri on a buzzer-beating reverse layup by Tigers’ guard Dru Smith, the Gators still have a chance to secure a double bye in the SEC tournament, which requires beating Tennessee on the road.

Given the mountain Florida has already climbed to get through this season, the challenge in beating Tennessee a second time is the equivalent of a molehill. White attributed the team’s “resiliency and off-the-court character” as the biggest factors in the UF recovery.

Still, that doesn’t mean he didn’t question whether they could get to this point after Johnson’s health status remained touch-and-go during his hospital stay, plus the ensuing two weeks of the Gators being completely idle from basketball.

“Dead honest, not only did [doubt] creep in every day, and we have stuff that you got to overcome mentally, especially these guys that are 20-years-old,” White said. “But as a staff, as the head coach, yeah, man, what are we going to do? But you just got to move on to the next thought. Like guys in the game, you got to move on to the next play. I hate to beat it up, but it’s the God’s honest truth.

“Even earlier on, I remember like it was yesterday when we got back from Tallahassee after a couple of days as a staff. We were spending a lot of time at Shands [Hospital in Gainesville, visiting with Johnson]. The first time we sat down with this team downstairs between the lines, circle up the chairs, there was a realistic thought that I’m not sure if these guys will be ready to play again this year.”

That come-to-Jesus moment was on December 26th, four days before the SEC opener against Vanderbilt. It wasn’t until White starting getting “more positive feedback” from the players at that meeting that he could see a pathway to hitting the reset button.

“Until that meeting, before our first practice in preparation for Vanderbilt, until we had that consensus from our guys, we just had no idea,” said White. “I felt like these guys would probably come around and get to a point where they wanted to get back to some normalcy, but we weren’t positive of it either.”

So how exactly did the Gators rebound from a near-tragic circumstance with their best player, then uncertainty about resuming the season, to a potential top-4 seed in the SEC tournament? There’s no one definitive explanation.

A significant factor is certainly sophomore guard Tre Mann evolving from an inconsistent, off-the-bench player last season into UF’s top scorer at 14.8 points per game, including 61 points on 22-of-36 shooting the last three games. White going to a bigger lineup last month paid early dividends, using 6-foot-10 Omar Payne to pair up with 6-11 Collin Castleton, though Payne remains a bit inconsistent.

But more than anything else, the plight of Johnson -- he remains part of the team as a quasi-assistant coach -- accelerated the Gators’ maturity as a team and they’ve become more connected on and off the floor.

“Since the Elite Eight team in our second year here [2016-17], this has been the best culture that we’ve had,” said White. “Our culture is in a pretty good place right now, but we got to fight for it every day.”

By no means is Florida as good now as that Elite Eight squad featuring Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen, which was a Top 25 team most of the season. But who knows what it could have been had a likely NBA draft pick like Johnson not had his season derailed by a heart inflammation?

With their current roster, the Gators can be an enigma. They’re capable of beating or losing to anybody, as evidenced by their road win against No. 6-ranked West Virginia and 75-49 home rout of Tennessee, as well as a bad closing stretch in a home defeat to South Carolina.

But UF is still good enough to be certifiably dangerous in the NCAA tournament, possibly Sweet 16-good if the Gators draw the right matchups. They could also fall in the first round to a No. 9 or 10 seed, especially a team with a formidable inside presence.

Under the circumstances, White has managed to extract a lot of mileage out of a team that had to plow through some COVID interruptions and reinvent itself a bit at midseason.

Thanks to Noah Locke, Castleton and Mann, the Gators are tops in the SEC in field goal percentage (.472), as well as No. 1 in three-point shooting (.359). On the downside, they still turn the ball over too much (14.6 per game), leading to offensive funks at bad times.

But considering where this team was in December, this is unquestionably one of White’s better coaching jobs. There’s certainly no lack of motivation for the players, seeing Johnson’s presence at practice every day. The Gators rediscovered the joy of playing the game, as much for each other as themselves..

“It means a lot,” said Locke. “It gives us that extra edge, it gives us that extra push when we’re getting tired or certain times in practice when things aren’t going well. Just pushing through adversity, I felt we did that a lot this year.

"It was definitely a hard situation for us to go through. Just having each other's back when we were feeling down at times. We're able to just push forward. We're playing basketball, something we love and basketball is like an outlet for us."

When the Gators see how Keyontae Johnson has made the best of a brutal situation, it’s hard not to be inspired. How far they can go at the March Madness finish line is another question. (904) 359-4540