Mike White and the Gators ready for NIT

It’s a chance to keep playing and win a championship. While some consider it a consolation prize, Florida head coach Mike White expects his Florida Gators turn in the NIT Basketball tournament a chance to still prove themselves and improve themselves.

There is no doubt that the first goal of a basketball program like Florida is to make the NCAA Tournament field at the end of the season. But, that didn’t happen. Now Florida will face the University of North Florida on Tuesday at 9 p.m. and although the Gators are the #2 seed in their quarter of the bracket, they will travel to Jacksonville to play because of renovations being done in the O’Connell Center in Gainesville.

These boys are disappointed in not making the Big Dance, but they seem to be staying on track with games left to play this season.

“We had practice yesterday afternoon and actually had a pretty good one considering the circumstances, then didn’t do anything with the team last night,” White told the media on Monday. “I didn’t watch the (NCAA selection) show myself. I was spending some time with my kids. Then I got a text in terms of who we were playing when and where. Then I jumped on North Florida in terms of evaluation of these guys and the scout and the plan.

This is bonus play for a team that didn’t have a choice last year with a losing record and no invite to post season. With a young team, it is an opportunity for the young guys to better their craft.

“Anytime you play you gain experience, whether it is positive or negative,” White said. “You can always draw from that experience.

“It is an honor for us all to be in the NIT. It’s an event with a lot of history and tradition. A lot of really good teams and players have played in the NIT. It’s not the ultimate goal, but we need to take advantage and treat this opportunity with respect and hope to get better.

“Every time you are between the lines, if you are a real basketball player, you should be trying to improve a little bit.  Whether it’s for the rest of the season or improvement down the road, or gaining the experience for down the road… that is the approach I would hope our guys would take.

“The older guys like Dorian, Alex, and Lexx, our seniors on the way out not having finished in the NCAA Tournament is probably harder than on the younger guys. I would anticipate that some of our younger guys at least being somewhat excited about just continuing to play. There are a lot of teams that aren’t playing, they’re done. I would hope that or guys would embrace this opportunity.”

And White plans on playing the games to win them, not trying to build for the future by getting the younger guys experience.

“I’m not going to over-complicate it, I just want to win,” White said. “At the end of it, win or lose, when the NIT is over, maybe we will be able to draw from that ‘I’m glad we got so-and-so a couple of minutes’ or ‘I’m glad this young guy was able to step up and hit a couple of shots’. But, going into it, if I have a senior that is playing great and Dorian Finney-Smith deserves 40 minutes tomorrow night, I’m not thinking about next season during the game. We are going to try to do our best to beat North Florida.

“You’d hope that we could gain some experience with a few of these guys. It is another road game. I am sure it would be a great atmosphere. It’s the NIT. It will be like the SEC Tournament… it’s win or go home. You’d hope that some of these young guys would step up and take advantage and have some positive experiences.”

Joshua Lindsey / USA TODAY Sports
 White does have one question that will be answered soon enough. Will sophomore center John Egbunu play because of an injury to his right thumb.  Egbunu could be a real difference maker if he can help on Tuesday.

“I’m not sure,” White said on whether Egbunu would play. “We should probably know more in the next few hours. I know he is going to get with Duke (tem trainer). I think he got with him this morning and there is talk about surgery here in the very near future. He is uncertain for (Tuesday). I don’t know if he will play or not. I don’t know if he will make the trip or not.

One player he will count on to begin with is junior point guard Kasey Hill who has been playing well at the end of the season and into the SEC Tournament.

“I think he’s coming off of his best stretch this season for us,” White said. “Kasey has made a very strong argument to get more minutes. He may do so depending on what kind of start he gets off to (Tuesday) night. I was as pleased with Kasey in the SEC Tournament as anyone on our team. Not only was he getting to the rim and scoring it, he was finishing it at a high rate (as well). He had the look in his eye. I loved his body language. He was making winning plays and playing as hard as he could play. I thought he put us on his back for a few minutes in the game against A&M. He was really good.”

Joshua Lindsey / USA TODAY Sports
 Better yet in White’s mind, Hill has continued his positive play after the game and into practice for Tuesday night’s game.

“He was arguably the best player on the floor yesterday (at practice),” White said. “It carried over from a couple of practices leading into the SEC Tournament. It’s funny how that works. He is having good practices. Then it carried over to Arkansas and then carried over again (against Texas A&M).

As he expects his team to play hard on Tuesday and be ready for the season to continue, there is no doubt there is some disappointment and even disagreement in how the SEC was treated on Selection Sunday by getting only three teams in the Big Dance.

“(Sunday night) was disappointing for our league of course,” he said. “I am disappointed that we didn’t make it. Obviously we didn’t have as strong an argument as South Carolina. I can’t imagine how (Gamecock’s head coach) Frank Martin and his program, how those guys feel today. It is a tough deal, they had a great season.

“I think our league is nationally underappreciated. Even when you consider Kentucky and where they stand. It’s a great league. “We just have to keep plugging away as a league. We’ve all just got to win a little bit more. We’ve all got to schedule a little bit better. We did that, Mike Hill did that for us. We have to take advantage of more opportunities.

“Our league, despite only getting three in, I thought we were really close. We were probably a couple of wins from a few teams to having several in.”



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