The Florida Gators (24-6, 14-3) entered the season with quite a bit of experience, but certainly some questions in some areas of their game. Shooting the ball was a real question mark a year ago and something that had to be answered. The other was a little bit of an internal thing. While Mike White’s first team got a long great with each other, there was a little something missing. They just weren’t that close and ready to play for each other.
Maybe White should schedule another refurbishing of the O’Connell Center to begin the season and take his team on the road. His team had to travel week after week when the season started and all of those road games helped build the camaraderie of his group. Long bus rides together and staying in hotel rooms together through November and December grew them closer.
It wasn’t perfect and the last time they played Vanderbilt, a home game on January 21, things kind of slipped back to a little complacency and not thinking about playing for each other. Something they really had to do early on when playing in hostile environments and away from home.
A coaches and players meeting was held and out of that meeting came a new mindset that went team wide. They all rededicated themselves to each other and in the end playing every minute as if it were the last. They then went on a nine game winning streak, only snapped on the road at league leading Kentucky.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin said Wednesday after the Gators beat his Gamecocks that this Florida team is playing through the eyes of Mike White. They are all on the same page and playing as one.
“I do feel like it’s our team as compared to a year ago where it seemed like it was a fight,” White said of the way is team is playing this go around. “There was more of a fight. Not that we had terrible culture, Not that we had terrible togetherness. We had a good group last year. Just, this is a great group… the sacrifice the togetherness. It’s 95 percent our guys. And then it’s 4 percent our staff. I’m a small piece of it. But is there more buy-in with this group? Absolutely.”
One aspect of that has helped the culture change is the general character of the members of the team. The players are more or less the same players, but their acceptance of someone new that can help was encouraging. That someone new was the addition of graduate transfer senior Canyon Barry. Barry has stepped in as a big time bench player to help with shooting woes and provide an all-around game that goes well with his teammates. Barry is second on the team in scoring despite averaging the sixth most minutes on the team.
White says he expected Barry to be able to step into the rotation and help so much.
"I'm not surprised,” White said of his ability to fit right in. “And it happened immediately. And Canyon, if he were here four years his role in the locker room would probably be a little bit different than it is right now. He's got great, great leadership skills, he's very intelligent. He's got incredible character, of course, and unselfishness, which have all spread throughout our program. He's been as big of the culture piece as anyone in the locker room, but he's also intelligent enough to know that he's coming in as a senior and he's not going to say everything that's said in the locker room and he's not going to step on toes and he's going to be a piece of it rather than being the guy. So it's just a sign of a really good teammate, and the empathetic piece, he understands. And he's fit in just like that. Not surprising. He's very talented."
There are times on the court when things go cold offensively. Last year the offense seemed like a chore. Not so much this year, although a lot of the current offense is predicated on the defensive end. White says he and the staff are at fault for some of the offensive stalls.
“I’ve got to help them better,” White said. “Sometimes it’s something schematically we can do a little bit differently. Sometimes it’s changing defenses. We haven’t always been quick to recognize or even when we do recognize, attack correctly. And some of it is just poise… I think it’s a combination of those things, we’ve got to try to avoid those offensive spells.”
The Gators have learned a great deal in how to deal with the loss of a big player. John Egbunu went down in a road game at Auburn on February 14, and the Gators had to finish that game and play five others without the senior starter at center. With redshirt freshman forward Keith Stone out with an infection for most of that time and freshman center Gorjok Gak also out with a sprained ankle, there was little to work with in terms of numbers in the front court to help with the loss of Egbunu.
Gak was back in the win over South Carolina Wednesday and gave the team eight good minutes with a couple of rebounds, a couple of points, and a blocked shot. White had hoped to get him more time during the season, but Gak will be pressed to play as we head into postseason.
“Five to 20 (minutes), just depending on foul trouble and flow of the game and things like that,” White said of the time he expects to ask of Gak moving forward. “He’s going to get opportunities for sure. I was really pleased with his performance the other day. He’s been pretty good the last couple of days, too. And he’s not at 100 percent, either. And he needs a couple of summers with Preston Greene in the weight room, of course. He’s going to be a good player for us.”
“He’s gained weight, he’s gained upper body strength and (injured freshman) Dontay Bassett has as well. Keith (Stone) has gotten stronger of course. All of our younger frontline guys have done a good job working in the weight room.”
Allen with severe cramping…
Gator fans and coaches got a big scare against South Carolina when sophomore guard Kevaughn Allen drove to the basket and scored, but went cramping to the floor with an injury. What looked like an ankle or knee injury turned out to be a cramp. Allen came back into the game, but he was still sore and White said he remains a little tender from the cramp.
“He’s actually a little sore,” White said two days after the game. “I haven’t had a lot of experience with that and it never happened to me. So I didn’t realize, I thought once you got rid of your cramp it’s over. But he actually was grabbing his lower leg, in fact today. I don’t know if he’s really comfortable or at 100 percent, but again it was just a cramp. Thank goodness.”