When talent is present, but execution is not, the game becomes more a battle of psychology than x’s and o’s. Thus is the coaching challenge Mike White currently faces with the Florida Gators basketball team.
“Oh, 90 percent of it. That’s what we’re dealing with on a daily basis.”
The Gators are young, which isn’t uncommon in college basketball but has long been an anomaly at Florida who has had only a single player leave for the NBA as a one-and-done in recent years (Bradley Beal). But the youth was overshadowed by the embarrassment of riches talent wise with freshmen like Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann and Ques Glover joining sophomores Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke. Oh and don’t forget the graduate transfer hot ticket get of the offseason, K.J. Blackshear.
Yet, White points out, “everybody’s got talent. Talent is nice to have and nice to work with, but production is what you need. It’s what we need…some of it is experience and age. Our young, talented guys have to grow up. It’s not enough, not nearly enough to be talented.”
To some degree, especially in college, preparing the mental state of a team is just as much the head coaches responsibility as the game plan. It’s why sports psychology is a growing field and how people who never played a minute of a respective sport can still rise in the coaching rankings. If you know how to find the similar pressure points on a variety of people, then there’s a good chance you can motivate the assortment of personalities that make up one roster.
Mike White understands this. He factors it into his molding of the 2019-2020 team. But this particular group—this particular diversification of dispositions—is requiring a shift in their coaches approach to focus considerably more attention to the mentality of each individual player and how it relates to another.
“How to prepare this 18-, 19-year-old to go hard at practice today. How to talk this 19-year-old off the cliff because it’s not going as expected, ‘cause he’s not getting 25 a game like last year. You go thorough it every year, but I’ve never been through it to this extent, to this amount of exterior expectation, with this amount of young guys who are needed. We need these young guys. We’ve had some older teams.
"I’ve said it to a bunch of people lately. This is difficult. It can be a good problem to have, too. I like our talent level. I like our guys a lot. This team is fun to be around. There are a ton of positives. But I have a newfound respect for some of these guys who deal with teams that are this young year in and year out.”
It’s another candid moment from a coach who has never hid behind empty platitudes or excuses. Mike White is honest—brutally honest if need be—which means he hasn’t sugar coated a single part of the Gators season to this point. He sat in the post game press conference following the early season loss to FSU and lamented on the players buying into their own preseason Final Four prediction and hype. He questioned their buy-in and said if they were that over confident, “then I've really got my hands full."
It can be scary for fans who think the sky is falling around a program that doesn’t know how to keep from being smothered. But instead, this has been an all-access look into perhaps the toughest part of bringing along a hopeful contender.
The Gators are currently 7-4, coming off two games that featured perhaps their most complete win of the season—an 83-51 dismantling of Providence in Brooklyn, New York—followed by another loss that slipped from their fingers, this time to Utah State.
The wins and at least more productive losses comes courtesy of what White calls a complete revamping of the offense.
“We [originally] gave our guys a lot of freedom offensively. We were running a lot of freelance, old-school passing game where there aren’t many rules or set calls. It’s about screening for each other, using screens, reading screens, so on and so forth. When the lights were on, with a bunch of young guys and on TV, we didn’t respond well to that amount of freedom. As I’ve said a few times to friends and family, it was like watching six year olds in a soccer game.”
The staff began to demand more structure, more set plays that slowed down the offense but helped the young guys grasp a better understanding of what was going on under the lights. And on Tuesday night against Providence, the Gators shot 51% while holding Providence to 21% shooting.
Now they just have to find a way to do it at home. It’s in what should be the friendly confines of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center that White has found his team loose themselves the most, even in wins like the one over Marshall.
“We get away from campus and we spend five-six days together in Charleston. We come together. We make a significant jump really both offensively and defensively, but especially offensively. The post-game locker room conversation, in an attempt to avoid [a regression], immediately went to the [outside] noise. To no avail. Whether you want to call it being comfortable, whether you want to call it feeling yourself, whatever. Four games in three days we come back and take two days off, watched the film as a staff we’re geek’d up ready to go to work, get better, continue riding that momentum and we had a really, really bad practice. We came back and had almost equally as bad a practice and played like [against Marshall].
“I don’t know sometimes who these guys are listening to. I don’t know what they’re reading. But we have a breakthrough when we all decide that we’re not going to listen to it and whether it’s positive or negative and we’re going to be connected and not worry about who’s scoring, who’s doing this and who’s doing that.”
The Florida Gators talent was matched by their execution against Providence. Now they must find a way to mimic the performance. It’ll be their mindset off the court that determines what happens on the court.