The black mask with the NCAA logo obscured some of the pain and shock on Mike White’s face Sunday night as he sat at the podium trying to explain the unexplainable after the Florida Gators literally gave away their second round NCAA South Regional game to 15th-seeded Oral Roberts. There was no mask for White’s voice, however, particularly when he answered a question about the 20 Florida turnovers that ORU turned into 23 points that were the difference between extending the season another week and ending on a disappointing note.
“It destroyed us,” White said, pointing a finger at the turnover issue that plagued his team. “It’s been our biggest issue all year.”
The Gators turned the ball over 375 times in 25 games, which is 16 per game. That UF finished 15-10 and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with so many turnovers is actually quite remarkable considering they (a) had only 293 assists all year and (b) forced opponents into 358 miscues. When you have such a negative assist-to-turnover ratio and your defense forces fewer turnovers than you make it’s like a festering sore that will only get worse with time.
This is an issue that got worse as the season progressed, boiling over at the end. You expect teams to be a bit sloppy with the ball early in the season but typically things get better with time and experience. The Gators were certainly hurt by the 18-day layoff after Keyontae Johnson collapsed on the floor at FSU. During the layoff time, there were very few practices and four games were missed. Cancelling the remainder of the season was actually an option that was on the table. Just when it seemed White had the Gators figuring things out, along came the 13-day pause due to COVID-19 in February. Three games were missed and again, there were few practices. These two pauses in the season had a part in curtailing this team’s development, but other teams dealt with postponed games and schedule pauses and some of them are still standing as the madness of the tournament marches on.
Even when things were going well, the Gators were never a great passing team nor were they ever much more than average when it came to protecting the basketball. Like any problem unchecked, the turnover and passing issues kept growing and then went into a tailspin in the final six game when UF turned the ball over 102 times while dishing out only 60 assists. Opponents converted the turnovers into 103 points and the Gators finished the season on a 2-4 descent.
When March arrived, it was thought UF would be a five seed in the NCAA Tournament with an outside shot at a four if they scored two or three wins and played well in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Rather than embrace the opportunity, the Gators went into a self-destruct mode. Of the two wins at the tail end of the season, the Gators nearly gave away the Vanderbilt game at the SEC Tournament and had to go overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to nip Virginia Tech.
The critical factor in the sluggish finish was the inability to pass the basketball well and to avoid turnovers. White insists that he made taking care of the ball a priority item in practice but judging by what happened there at the end of the year, it’s fairly obvious the team wasn’t buying whatever he was selling.
“I'm not sure that there's anything else that we could have tried in terms of motivation or film,” White said. “We talked … you can't talk about it any more than we talked about it, working on it in practice.”
Perhaps White’s approach to dealing with the turnover issues was too difficult for the Gators to grasp. It is easier to point a finger at the coach and say his methods were too complicated than to blame a bunch of 18-22 year old kids for turning a deaf ear to their coach but no matter who is to blame, the problem persisted and the season ended in disappointment. This is a team that never really improved when it came to passing the ball and avoiding the critical turnovers.
When calendar flipped over turned to March, it was as if floodgates were opened and the turnover problems the Gators experienced all year went from bad to overwhelming. Instead of improving, the Gators slammed on brakes and screeched to a half.
“To me it was a mentality that this team, unfortunately, never fully embraced the importance, unfortunately, of each possession, and let's just get one up,” White said.
What destroyed the Gators is in stark contrast to Gonzaga, which is easily the best team in the country. The Zags shoot 55 percent as a team largely because they are the nation’s most unselfish team. They rank second nationally in assists per game and they are top ten in fewest turnovers. In their opening round win over Norfolk State in the NCAA Tournament, the Zags had 27 assists on 34 made baskets, which is astounding efficiency. In that game, Gonzaga turned the ball over only 11 times.
The Zags are on a mission to win a national championship. Getting there means setting egos aside and embracing teamwork. It also means listening to and understanding what the coach asks for and demands in both practices and games.
Sunday night, White didn’t blame the team for the failure to correct the turnover issues. He did what smart coaches do and pointed the finger at himself.
“This group, I just did a poor job of embracing the level of basketball that's needed to compete at a high level,” he said.
Now that the season is over, White has six months before he will be allowed by the NCAA to hold another practice. During that period of time, it’s up to him to figure out how to get the Gators to do the things it takes to succeed and win at a high level in Division I. It might take changes in his own schemes and methods and it could entail changes to his staff but somehow White has to find a way to better connect with his team.
No doubt White will have to deal with some personnel issues. Tre Mann’s NBA Draft stock has been constantly rising to the point that he’s borderline lottery so it’s highly unlikely that he will return next season. No one knows at this time what will happen with Keyontae Johnson. We may not know for months whether or not he will be allowed to resume his basketball career, and if he’s given a clean bill of health prior to the NBA Draft, will he elect to declare or will he choose to come back for one more season in Gainesville. It would be unusual if at least one player doesn’t transfer out and given White’s success in luring quality transfers (Canyon Barry from College of Charleston; Jalen Hudson from Virginia Tech; Egor Koulechov from Rice; Kerry Blackshear Jr. from Virginia Tech; Anthony Duruji from Louisiana Tech; Tyree Appleby from Cleveland State; and Colin Castleton from Michigan), it’s difficult to think he won’t dip into that market once again.
No matter who suits up for the Gators next year Mike White has to get through to every single one of his players that they can’t have another season in which there is such a lack of focus and discipline. Turnovers and selfishness are merely symptoms of problems solved only through focus, discipline and commitment.
Next year will be White’s seventh at the University of Florida. With the exception of the COVID-19 season (2019-20), White has taken the Gators to the postseason every year but only once into the Sweet 16 and beyond. In 2017, White had the Gators within a bad two minute stretch at the end of the game with South Carolina from making the Final Four. Since then the Gators have struggled once into the second round.
The recent problems suggest it’s time to re-evaluate the entire basketball program from top to bottom. There are so many things that White is doing right but he needs to figure out what obstacles are hindering the growth of the program and remove them. Change is never easy, but the loss to Oral Roberts is a clear indicator that the time for making changes is now, otherwise the basketball program will be spinning its wheels.