Gators shock #11 West Virginia on the road, resurrecting hope about Mike White

mike white
If only Mike White had the team playing like this a year or two ago… (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

For anybody who cares to see the Florida Gators basketball team be what it should be, it’s been extremely difficult to justify the last three seasons. But just as fans began to feel they’d seen more than enough of Mike White and were ready to turn the page to a new coach, his Gators have suddenly ripped off four wins in a row- two of them against bona fide NCAA Tournament teams- and breathed new life into what many have started believing is a program that’s locked in college basketball purgatory. (And that statement very much includes yours truly.)

Make no mistake. The last three seasons have been nowhere close to the standard that the University of Florida has set for its basketball program, and that falls squarely on the shoulders of Mike White. Banners that boast of trips to the Final Four and winning the SEC Championship adorn the rafters in the O’Dome. It doesn’t matter if you as an individual fan happen to have lower standards for success for the program than that, because that is the standard. The very school that we all root for said so, loud and clear. Since a miracle three from Chris Chiozza in the Sweet 16 four years ago, Florida hasn’t even come close to achieving either one. And when the time comes at the end of the year to evaluate Mike White, that is something that cannot be completely ignored.

But it’s also no longer possible to just write off what this Gator basketball team is doing these days as an anomaly. In the three games prior to today’s upset, Florida has:

  • sledgehammered Tennessee, 75-49, to right the ship after an ugly two week span in which they went 1-3. A complete, start-to-finish domination on both ends of the floor was certainly something to feel good about, although it seemed to be the outlier result after four straight subpar performances. But then the Gators…
  • went to Athens, Georgia, and dropped 92 points on the Bulldogs in a 92-84 win. Florida dominated the second half, leading by double digits most of the way, and crushed Georgia on the boards by a 41-27 margin after struggling in that department for most of the first dozen games. That made two in a row. Florida made it three when they…
  • returned home and beat Vanderbilt. This was not the prettiest game, but Florida again controlled the second half and knocked down enough threes to build up a lead that could not possibly be relinquished, try as they might have down the stretch. So now the win streak was at three….

…and then Florida made it four by traveling to Morgantown to face a West Virginia team that’s considered to be a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, shrugging off several pro-Mountaineers calls from the officials that ranged from garden variety missed calls to “OK, the fix has to be in” level missed calls, overcoming 28 points from Derek Culver, somehow fighting a much bigger West Virginia team to a draw on the boards, and locking down defensively to seal it. And all, of course, without star forward Keyontae Johnson after his frightening situation in Tallahassee last month.

So now, what we have in Florida might not merely be a team that’s in the midst of an anomalous stretch. Because we’ve seen that pattern play out before in 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20. Sure, that’s very common in basketball, but the level of play under Mike White often reads like a sine wave for four games or so at a time. His teams can go from looking like a real Final Four contender in a two or three game stretch to playing like they don’t even belong in the NIT two weeks later. And the level of play is directly reflected in the results: the Gators randomly decide to execute on defense one night, find ways to collect loose balls, find their shooting touch and win three or four games in a row. Then they start feeling good about themselves, maybe they read too many press clippings about themselves, or whatever it is, the level of play falls off a cliff and a few losses fall in (sometimes to particularly bad teams) to counteract the uptick. But this just feels different.

Part of the reason why is that Florida finally seems to have an offense that’s suited for the personnel that Mike White has. Colin Castleton’s bad game is still a problem for most teams because they have to spend manpower on him in the paint in case he gets hot; meanwhile, Noah Locke remains deadly from three point land, Tre Mann is usually a very good facilitator of the offense, Tyrie Appleby and Anthony Duruji can play multiple sub-positions within the offense at a high level, and for an added treat- though he’s still not quite the game dominator many thought he would be out of high school, Scottie Lewis is always a threat to do something spectacular with the ball. For all the criticism that gets (rightfully) flung his way for drawing up precisely the wrong offense for his personnel before last season- which went so badly that he had to scrap it and slap together a makeshift, simpler offense the rest of the season- White gets credit for this.

Then there’s the blood-sweat-and-tears component to it. Though the Gators still do sometimes take some stretches off in the hustle category, those occasions are becoming less and less frequent. A year ago, Florida just didn’t bother showing up at all defensively for some entire games, most notably in embarrassing losses to Butler and Missouri. Today, against West Virginia? Florida fought hard for just about every loose ball, played close, tight man defense on far more possessions, and overcame an obvious size disadvantage against the Mountaineers to force a push in the rebounding department. These Florida Gators fought for their lives today, and just as it’s a bad reflection on Mike White when the team plays dead, that is worth a cap tip to White. He’s the coach of a team that executed, battled, and beat a team few outside that locker room thought they could beat. And here’s where I’ll again throw in that this team has been through hell, between COVID-19 outbreaks and watching what they may plausibly have believed was, in the moment, the literal death of one of their teammates on the court.

And finally, there’s the fact that Florida has now taken down two big time opponents in close proximity of each other. There was the super-sized win over Tennessee, and then there was today’s upset. Oftentimes, in one of those peaks in the everlasting journey through the peaks and troughs, Florida will beat one solid opponent, but now they’ve knocked off two in succession. That yields credence to the idea that maybe neither one was an anomaly. Maybe this is the start of something exciting.

Now, I hate to make this win all about Mike White’s status as Florida’s basketball coach, so I’ll phrase the next point in a certain way as to not make it sound like I am. Or maybe I’ll phrase it in a way that encompasses both the status of the team and Mike White at the same time.

Anyway, in bold: this was a big, big win. This was undeniably extremely impressive. But the work is not done.

Mike White doesn’t undo three-plus years of frustration with one big win, or even a four game winning streak. It’s a start, sure. But no starting point is ever the finish. He has more work to do to prove that he belongs at the University of Florida, but at least now, for the first time in several years, there’s a hope that he is capable of doing that work. There’s hope that he’s capable of getting out of his own way by not coaching his team out of games with bad offensive game plans, of wringing some consistency out of his players down the stretch and putting them in position to gut out enough tough wins to make this year remembered for something more than, “meh, it was OK.”

And by the same token, this team hasn’t done anything worth truly celebrating yet. The NCAA Tournament is still a month and a half away; meanwhile, the Gators sit three games out of first place in the SEC with nine to go. But now there’s hope that they could at least make a push for the conference crown should Alabama fall back down to earth, and even if they don’t, they played in a fashion today that has spawned reason to believe that they’re capable of making a push for even bigger glory in the NCAA Tournament.

So this isn’t the you-were-right-I-was-wrong-and-I’m-so-sorry-for-doubting-you stage of time. Mike White and his team still haven’t earned that yet, because if the last three seasons taught us anything, it’s that three or four games in January or February don’t define Mike White or his team in the slightest bit. But what I will say is this: Mike White, and Gator basketball, you’ve got fans’ attention now. Keep working, keep building, keep growing. And go prove all the dismissals of the past three and a half seasons wrong.