Image Credits: GatorsMBK twitter
Coming into the 19/20 college basketball season the Florida Gators were destined for a great season, with several websites ranking the Gators as a top ten team and a potential bid for a tournament run. Despite the tournament being cancelled due to the recent pandemic, the year had been seen as a major disappointment when compared to the preseason hype. After going 19-12 some fans are calling for Mike White to be fired, even though the year before he had gone 20-16. Was it reasonable to expect so much from the Florida Gators and who’s fault is it for the difference in expectation and reality?
When comparing the current iteration of the gators and how they would fair, you have to look at the amount of production the team had lost the year before. The most important players lost from the year before were the three seniors, Kevarrius Hayes, Jalen Hudson, and KeVaughn Allen. Defensively, Hayes was a defensive anchor for Mike White’s squad averaging 6.3 rebounds while also averaging 1.9 blocks and 1.0 steals. Kevaughn himself was also a disruptive perimeter defender with 1.4 steals per game. For this team, defense was their calling card as they were 20th in the nation in points per game.
Meanwhile on offense the Gators were losing two of their top three scorers in KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson. The 2018-2019 team itself was an offensively inept team being ranked 292nd in points per game while also ranking 275th in FG% and 231st in 3pt %. This loss in reliable production seemed to stunt the gators especially in the beginning of the year.
Despite the loss of production, many people were able to overlook this due to the potential and talent that Mike White was able to bring in. For the first time since the Gators recruited Kasey Hill and Chris Walker (oof), White was bringing in two McDonald’s All Americans to the program in freak-athlete Scottie Lewis and the offensively talented Tre Mann. Along with the two diaper dandies, White had won the crown jewel of the graduate transfer portal in 2018-2019 All-ACC 2nd teamer Kerry Blackshear Jr. Along with the return of three starters ( Noah Locke, Andrew Nembhard, and Keyontae Johnson), the talent was there.
Talent was undeniable, however what wasn’t there was the experience. The only senior in the rotation for Florida was Kerry Blackshear, and even for him, this was his first year in Gainesville and under Mike White. Even in the one-and-done era, when we look back at the great teams of college basketball in recent history, they were often led with a strong core of upperclassmen. The 2018-2019 Virginia Cavaliers did have a young star in De’Andre Hunter, yet Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy were the experienced juniors and leaders of the team. In rough patches and possible disastrous situations, like when they were down 6 points to a sixteen seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the team could rely on their steady hand and experience to pull them through. Although inexperienced teams have been successful before (see 2015 Duke and 2012 Kentucky) they are more often than not special cases rather than the normal.
With the only senior being Kerry Blackshear and all the returning rotation players being sophomores, the gators needed time to jell and find an identity. We see this in early losses to much more experienced teams in FSU and UCONN early on. Scottie Lewis often times looked unsure on offense often leading to wild turnovers and poor shots, meanwhile Tre Mann seemed to lack confidence especially early on. The two took time to adjust, and the players that were most experienced under coach White have only been under his system for two years.
As much as lack of experience can be to blame, a lot of the blame has to go to Mike White and his failure to prepare for the season and the team he had. Despite winning games against North Florida and Towson early in the year, one thing was apparent and that was the offense looked sloppy and incoherent. Before the Charleston Classic, Mike White had to revamp the entire offense on the fly to adjust for the team. Often times through the year Mike White had to cycle through many variations of the starting five. It wasn’t until midway into conference play (almost three quarters of the way in) did Mike White settle on a consistent starting five.
As the year went on the team would go on to pick up some duds of losses in games against beatable teams such as Missouri, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. Often times Coach White would fail to hold onto leads during the game, such as in the Mississippi State game at home. In the first half they had a lead as big as sixteen points. Yet by the end of the game, poor shot selection and lack of effort on the board led to a loss. If the season were to be described in one game it would be the final game at home at Kentucky. Up by 10 at half, the gators were in control the entire game, however were never able to hold a run to put the wildcats away. It all came to the end with a loss by one point.
It easier to understand losses against some of the top teams of the season such as to FSU, Baylor, and Kentucky. Most of these games being competitive to a point, however losses to less talented and cohesive team such as Missouri and Ole Miss are not excusable. Even worse, losses with double digit leads hurt Mike White’s case even more.
Image Credits: AP Photo/Matt Stamey
The Bright Light
Despite the disappointing year Rowdy Reptiles still have reason to be hopeful for next year. First and foremost, it is clear to see that the gators did improve throughout the year, specifically the freshmen. Scottie Lewis began to understand where and when he could get his points leading to a couple double digit games near the end of the season and capping the year off with a season high 19 points. While improving on offense, it was clear that Scottie’s defense was awe inspiring with several highlight blocks and steals. Meanwhile Tre Mann also began to see improvement and more of a willingness to pull up shots off the dribble, a trait that made him such an elite prospect coming out of highschool. Omar Payne showed his potential to be a defensive anchor and Ques Glover displayed an ability to possibly be a spark plug off the bench in the future.
The only key piece graduating for the gators is Kerry, and the NBA Draft could be in the plans for Andrew Nembhard and/or Scottie Lewis. Besides that, the gators look to return a large amount of their rotation this year, giving more time for the team to jell and bond. With transfers Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji finally available, and with explosive combo guard Niels Lane and combo forward Samson Ruzhentzev on the way. If Coach Mike White can get the best of the team next year, they have a chance to redeem themselves from such a lackluster year.