Mike White’s Team

By FRANZ BEARD

GatorBait Senior Columnist

The debut is out of the way and up next is Florida State on Sunday. The Gator

basketball team, at times, looked worthy of their Top Ten ranking on Tuesday when

they polished off North Florida, 74-59, in the season opener at Exactech Area.

There were stretches like that 18-0 run over 6:43 in the first half and that 10-3 run

to start the second half when the Florida looked every bit the 6th-ranked team in the

country.


There was also that 14-minute stretch to end the game when the Gators looked like

a team that plays five freshmen and three sophomores. The Gators that outscored

the North Florida Ospreys 28-3 on those two tears that totaled a little over 10

minutes were dialed in defensively, sprinted the floor in transition and shared the

ball nicely. If Mike White can get the Gators to play 40 minutes like that, he's got a

team that can easily challenge for the Southeastern Conference championship and

make a very deep run in the NCAA Tournament.


There is no question this is the most talented roster top to bottom that White has

had as he enters his fifth year as Florida's head coach. He has a team with more

size, quickness, shooters like Noah Locke (14 points Tuesday night) and freshman

Tre Mann (11), an elite point guard in sophomore Andrew Nembhard (only two

points, but four assists and zero turnovers) and a big man that might be the best in

the entire country in graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. The trick for White will

be to create a cohesive group that plays defense with the intensity he demands and

spreads the ball around at the offensive end so unselfishly that big scoring nights

can come from any one of several options


Tuesday night it was Blackshear that had the O-Dome crowd buzzing as he put

together a double-double in his first game as a Gator. Blackshear scored 20 points

on 8-11 shooting (1-1 from the three-point line) from the field and 3-3 from the foul

line. He grabbed 10 rebounds, handed out three assists and added a couple of

steals.


For all the things he did well scoring and rebounding the basketball, however, what

Blackshear brought to the Gators was a presence that has been lacking. He's a guy

who can go out and get a double-double just about any night but he's also the one

guy all of Florida's youngsters know can deal with any circumstance. Consider

Blackshear Florida's bail out guy. If the shot clock is ticking down to its final

seconds, he can get his shot whether inside or outside. When teammates struggle

with pressure, they know if they get the ball anywhere close, Blackshear's strong

hands are ball security. When the ball comes off the rim, he gets good position and

if he gets his hands on it, he owns the rebound


“He gives you the opportunity offensively to play a variety of ways,” White said. “He

scores on the interior, he draws fouls, he can shoot it and probably his most

underrated aspect is how well he passes the ball. He’s extremely unselfish as well.

North Florida coach Matt Driscoll, who cut his college basketball coaching teeth

working as an assistant for Larry Shyatt at Wyoming and Clemson, sees

Blackshear as Florida's missing link and not only for the way he will play at both

ends of the court but how he will impact all those young kids.


“What he brings to this team is something that you guys needed badly with such

young people,” Driscoll said. “He’s given it to you instantly and because of that, he’s

going to allow you guys to be in that upper-echelon, be top in the country and

compete like that because he’s got that understanding. He’s endured, he’s got

strength, and he’s got character. When you have those three things you can do

really really special things for your team. That’s what Kerry does for you guys.”

Blackshear will need to be the glue early on for the Gators. When they put it all

together, they'll look sensational but the kids will have their share of moments when

their high level of ability is betrayed by their youth. That's when Blackshear's

maturity will pay of in a big way.


Florida's first big test will come Sunday when Florida State comes to town. The

Seminoles are always physical and tough, a difficult assignment for a team that

White knows might take awhile to really find itself.


“The five freshmen who played, that was their first game so we've got a ways to

go,” White said. “None of us expect to be a great team in November, we just don’t.

We’re striving to be. If we are … wow. That means we’re really good. But we’re not

really good. I hope we can be, I don’t know that we will be. I like to optimistically

think we could be very good by February, hopefully earlier than that.”

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