Bad practices were a bad omen for Mike White

It started with practices before the Gators traveled to Columbia to face the Missouri Tigers.

“It’s the worst we’ve been in a month,” Mike White said Monday before Florida (10-5, 2-1 SEC) took to the practice floor to prepare for Tuesday night’s encounter with Ole Miss (9-6, 0-2 SEC) at the O-Dome. Whether as a player, assistant or head coach, White has discovered practices are generally a barometer of things to come. Poor practices are usually followed by a poor game. Heading into the Missouri game, practices had been getting better almost on a daily basis. That changed.

And, as if a further indicator of a bad performance was required, there was the shoot-around once the Gators arrived in Columbia.

“It was the first shoot-around, as a staff, that we got really agitated with our focus level and effort, discipline,” White said. “We had to stop shoot-around and address our guys and let them know what they were in for if we didn’t make a 180.”

The necessary 180 never happened. Missouri came out guns blazing at the offensive end of the floor, tough and physical defensively. The Tigers were ready, the Gators were not and it was evident within seconds of the opening tip.

“I’m sure they had a better shoot-around than we did,” White said.

Sarcasm noted.

Missouri drained a three-pointer on its first offensive possession and never trailed. For the Gators, bad went to worse and worse went to disastrous. Missouri, it seemed, could do no wrong. The Gators, at least on this night, could do very little right.

Those first few possessions set the tone for the entire game.

“It turned into a dominant performance by them for 40 minutes,” White said. “They beat us in every category.”

Beat indeed. When the final horn sounded rather mercifully, Missouri didn’t look quite so downtrodden anymore and the Gators looked nothing like the team that staged a magnificent comeback to beat Alabama in double overtime in the first SEC game of the year or the one that played steady, consistent basketball for a 13-point win over South Carolina on the road.

Missouri 91, Florida 75. It really wasn’t as close as the 16-point margin would indicate, either.

The Gators trailed by 15 at halftime and needed an Alabama-like comeback in the final 20 minutes, but even though it was a better half for UF offensively there were few – if any – defensive stops to be had like there were in the second half of the Bama game. When you’re down double figures at the half, you can’t expect to come back and win a game when the best you can do is trade baskets.

It all added up to a miserable defensive performance, something that obviously was still burning with White at his Monday press conference. Missouri shot 61.5% overall from the field and 63.2% from the three-point line. In Mizzou’s 14 previous games, the Tigers were shooting at a 42.6% clip from the field overall and a rather poor 30.5% from the three-point line.

This was easily the worst defensive effort of this season or any of the four previous seasons at UF for White. Was it the worst ever?

“Probably since I’ve been a head coach,” White said. “If the game was still going on they’d probably still be making threes on us.”

Was the Missouri game an aberration? Was it something correctable? Or is it a sign of things to come?

Since White arrived from Louisiana Tech, defense has been Florida’s calling card. It hasn’t been uncommon for the Gators to score an improbable win on nights when the offense wasn’t clicking because they swarmed defensively and got enough stops to compensate for their own inability to consistently put the ball in the hole. Despite the poor start Saturday night, the Gators actually played well enough offensively to win the game, but once again, you can’t rally from behind if you can’t get stops.

Was this game a defensive aberration and if so, will it have a lingering effect psychologically? This is a very young team, after all (only 11 of the 351 Division I teams are younger than UF), and it’s probably harder for so many freshmen and sophomores to put such an embarrassing effort in the past. An edge of doubt isn’t going to help the Gators against Ole Miss Tuesday night, and particularly against fourth-ranked Auburn next Saturday.

If the problems are correctable, it will start with a clear understanding that the critical elements of good defense are desire, effort, keeping the feet moving and doing it every single possession by opponents. Saturday night, desire, effort and moving feet were in short supply.

On a 10-man roster that includes five freshmen and three sophomores, the one player White can depend upon to get it when he preaches desire, effort and moving feet is Blackshear. That’s because Blackshear is 23 years old, a second team All-ACC performer last year at Virginia Tech and according to White one of the most intelligent players he’s ever coached. Blackshear gets it.

It’s the other guys that concern White.

“With these other guys, there’s a lot of things that you can tell freshmen as a coach and even sophomores,” White said.

White knows they hear every word he has to say, but he has to wonder if they are really listening? Is it sinking in? Do they really understand what has to happen to create a winning effort.

“’I hear you, Coach. I got you,’” White said, “and they think they really understand and they think they’re buying into what you’re saying. But until they experience the loss or the negative result, whatever it may be – playing poorly, giving up a big lead and barely winning, whatever it may be. Until they experience it enough and it really clicks in, you’re going to be inconsistent.”

Hence, the story of Florida’s season. The Gators are 10-5, 2-1 in the SEC. That’s in a season in which even blue bloods like Michigan State (13-4) and North Carolina (8-8), Ohio State (11-5), UCLA (8-8) and last year’s national champ Virginia (12-4) have head-scratching losses that are hard to explain. So, Florida’s roller coaster ride isn’t as disastrous as some would believe it to be. There might not be a truly great team in all of college basketball at this point of the season.

We might be saying something completely different when March arrives because that’s when young teams and inconsistent teams tend to find themselves and string together enough wins to make deep runs into the NCAA Tournament. As Billy Donovan said after Florida won the first of its back-to-back national championships in 2006, “Were we the best team? I can’t say that we were, but we were the team that won six straight games.”

Once you make the NCAA Tournament, it’s the team that goes 6-0 that takes home the big trophy and sways to the sounds of “One Shining Moment” as the confetti flies. But we are a long way from the NCAA Tournament, which means the Gators have an opportunity to figure things out. From a talent perspective, Florida has enough talent to make a very deep run in March.

From a maturity standpoint? That’s another story altogether and the answer to that question is the one that will determine if this is a Florida team capable of living up to at least some of the preseason hype or go down as one that was vastly overrated.

To live up to the hype, the Gators can’t have games like they had against Missouri. Asked if there was anything positive he could take from the Missouri game, White paused for several seconds before he answered, “Um … no. I don’t know what we did well. Uh, nope. Just didn’t play very well.” 

We will know tonight if the message of a game in which the head coach couldn’t find a single positive thought actually sunk in.

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