Challenges ahead for Mike White’s second Gator team

The 2016-2017 Florida Men’s Basketball season promises to be a very challenging one for Mike White as he starts his second year as the head coach of the Gators. Dealing with injuries, the loss of his best player, and having to play almost an entire pre-SEC schedule away from home are things this team will have to deal with early on.

White led off the Summer SEC Basketball Coaches teleconference Monday saying that they are way off from determining how this team is going to look just yet.

“We’re so far off,” he said. “We need a lot more time. People ask, ‘are you excited for basketball season around Gainesville’.  I’m excited for football season first.  I’m excited to prepare for basketball season.

“We have to get some guys healthy, John Egbunu (thumb), Canyon Barry (shoulder), and Devin Robinson (foot). In addition to our program all three of those guys are a ways off to getting to 100% and getting cleared.

“We do have a lot back. We lose a really good player in Dorian Finney-Smith. I was disappointed when he didn’t get drafted. He was our best player and did a lot of great things. We lose him, so collectively we have to replace that spot which will be very important for us.

“We all just have to individually get a little bit better, each of us, staff included. If we do so, hopefully we will have a chance to be competitive in what we think will be another really good year, perhaps an improved year in our league and one of the best leagues in college basketball. I think the league will be terrific, great players and coaches and a bunch of them.

“It’s a busy time on campus today. Summer-B starts, our young guys are here for the first time. (We have) first workouts, first meetings. We start individual camp in the next few minutes and this morning we unveiled the Otis Hawkins Center for Academics and Personal Excellence for our student athletes personally and academically. It’s an exciting day here in Gainesville.

The injuries are something they are not going to rush. All three players are important to the mix this season, but their health is paramount.

 “Perhaps John and Canyon (can participate in July) to a certain extent… limited action,” White said. “There is a lot of information being thrown out at us. I just know in terms of getting to 100%, all three are a ways off. We don’t play a game in a month, so we don’t want to rush it. We want to make sure by October all three of those guys are at 100%.

“Hopefully by the end of Summer-B we are able to do a few things with a couple of these guys.”

One unique challenge the team will have to face is playing away from the friendly confines of the O’Connell Center and Exactech Arena until just before the start of the SEC schedule. An overhaul of the arena is happening as I type and won’t be done until late December.

That means the team will travel around to play the start of the season. At this point, they aren’t even exactly sure where and when they will play some of the contests leading up to that point.

“It will be a unique, interesting non-conference slate for us in that we won’t be in the O’Connell Center until late December,” White said. “It provides very challenging matchups for us. It has been difficult on Mike Hill and the administration. Mike leads that charge with scheduling, to get these games. I think we’re far from finished right now in terms of finishing the non-conference schedule. It’s just all the logistics involved with what gyms are available on what dates and what time and how we could potentially draw and what opponents are willing to consider the matchup. It’s been difficult.

Florida played a tough non-conference schedule to start the year last season. The fact that they won a good deal of those and on the road was enough to vault the Gators up the rankings by the start of conference play. The schedule should play out that tough this time around and winning could go a long way towards post season goals.

“We played a very difficult non-conference schedule last year, but this year with all of that considered it should be even more difficult,” White said. “Those challenges provide opportunities to generate some positive computer numbers and positive experiences if we can have some success. They will be difficult matchups for us.”

One thing White hopes to draw from that he couldn’t a year ago is the experience of playing together and coaching the players. As a new staff in charge of the team, they just couldn’t draw on experience to know what to expect. With 10 players returning that understand what is going on, things should be much different.

“I can’t tell you that we’re going to be better,” White said in terms of what year two brings. “Obviously we all hope that we are better than we were last season. But I know we’re in a much better place than we were at this time last year because we’re so much more familiar with what we’re dealing with. Not only us as a staff, but more importantly our players, are more familiar with each other, with us, with what we’re trying to do schematically, and with what we’re trying to stand for as a program.”

There has been some turnover as well. DeVon Walker, Brandone Francs-Ramirez, Alex Murphy, Dorian Finney-Smith, Zach Hodskins, and Lexx Edwards have all finished their eligibility or transferred away. But with that comes a closer, tighter group that is more in tune with what they are trying to get accomplished and more in line with the skills that a new program is looking for.

“I think that the culture only continues to improve, so does that always translate to more wins?” White asked rhetorically. “I don’t think so, but I feel, and our players feel, more comfortable with where we are sitting here at the end of June than 12 months ago.”

Focused on three areas in offseason…

Florida was 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC in three-point field goal percentage (31.2%) and was 12th in free throw percentage (64.3%) last season. These are two areas where White will work to make better and believes there needs to be a huge improvement. A third area is just the fact that his second group of players will really accept the ways of the new staff and what they are trying to build.

“Free throw percentage, three point percentage, and free throw percentage again,” White half joked when asked what three areas need to improve the most. “Those two would definitely be one and two.

“We have to shoot the basketball better. I felt like free throw shooting games last year. I understand it cost everyone last year, but as much as anyone we were pitiful from the line on several different nights. On three point percentage we were defended at a high level from several different teams, but we have to shoot the ball more consistently. We have to take better shots. We have to have the right guys shooting the ball in the right spots and at the right times.

“Lastly I would say just our overall buy-in which I expect to be better in year two. These are all processes with transitions in college basketball. Going into year two and year three, you would think the natural progression in terms of buy-in will increase, and that will only help us.”

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 Part of that improvement will hopefully come from senior point guard Kasey Hill. Hill was in nearly a season long slump from the three point line and from the foul line before turning things around as the Gators started post season play. In the last several games of the year, he was the best player on the court.

White has seen continued improvement from his elder point guard who has really stepped up the work ethic in the offseason.

“I think (Hill’s late season production) gives us a little bit of confidence from a staff and roster standpoint in that our rising senior point guard and potential leader, and that will be a challenge to him every day, has got a lot of momentum,” White said. “He played as well as anyone on our team the last month of the season. He has also had as good of an offseason to this point, as anyone on our team. He’s really put in the hours. He’s really bought in to another level in terms of everything we’re trying to do as a program.

Again, I am proud of where he stands as of a couple of weeks ago. I think if we had a game tomorrow, I’d feel pretty good about Kasey Hill and the way he is headed.”

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