Winning big games isn’t a rarity for the Gators under coach Mike White.
In White’s six-plus seasons, the Gators have defeated 19 top-25 opponents, including six wins at home by 13 or more points. The latest, of course, was the Gators’ 71-55 win over then-No. 20 Florida State on Sunday.
What has been a rarity under White in recent years, though, is sustained excellence. The 2017-18 team lost three out of four games following a blistering start to the year that saw them beat Gonzaga and nearly topple Duke in the PK80 tournament in Portland. In 2018-19, they finished the regular season on a three-game losing streak after winning the prior five games before that stretch.
The 2019-20 team lost three straight games after upsetting No. 4 Auburn by 22 points. Most recently, last year’s team lost their next two games after beating No. 11 West Virginia on the road.
White’s tenure at Florida has been a mixed bag of extremely high highs and extremely low lows that have resulted in average seasons when all was said and done.
That’s what makes No. 24 Florida’s game with Milwaukee on Thursday evening compelling. Obviously, beating one Horizon League team isn’t going to completely change the narrative on White, but it would be an encouraging sign for a team that has shown a lot of promise so far.
This is the kind of game that just feels like a trap. The Gators (2-0) are coming off of a huge win, are ranked now and are playing a mid-major team in front of what figures to be a lighter crowd. Good teams might struggle under these circumstances. Great teams play with the same intensity that they did the last time out and take care of business.
This game will tell us a little bit about which of those categories the 2021-22 Gators fall under.
“[The postgame celebration] was fun,” White said. “Really good group of guys who just bring it every day. Just proud to be a part. Big win for us, of course. We need to celebrate those moments as much as possible, of course. But, you’ve got to handle success the right way, and that’s where our focus and our attention moved toward. ‘Let’s have fun with this. Let’s celebrate this, but, after today, after Sunday night, it’s about moving on.’ And, hopefully, we can have more of those special moments in postgames. But how we handle, again, the level of success that these guys earned will determine how many of those we can have.
“We’ve addressed that stuff to the entire team at times, and, really, throughout the fall, we talked about it with some of the leaders individually, with what these guys are talking about amongst themselves in the locker room, that ownership level we talk about that we feel is so important. What our guys, especially our leaders, say to each other holds a lot of weight. And it’s all about handling success, which is prevalent throughout college basketball. After big wins, how do you rebound? The best teams learn, of course, how to handle success better than others. I think we’ve been pretty solid the last couple days. Hopefully, it carries over to the next couple.”
UF guard Myreon Jones said that the team’s mentality won’t change just because they’ve experienced a little bit of success and will have a number next to their name on ESPN this week.
“When we went into the Florida State game, it was ‘Be disciplined, play together on defense.’ Like, all the simple things, and we have to carry that on,” he said. “We can’t get too excited. We’re ranked now; so what? It’s just a number. We’ve still got to play our same way of basketball. We’ve got to play the reason, the same way we got ranked. So, I feel like that’s what we’ve got to go into this game thinking.”
The Panthers (1-1) went 10-12 last season and finished seventh in their conference, and they lost to Eastern Kentucky in their most recent game this season.
However, they have one of the best players in the country on their side. Patrick Baldwin Jr., a five-star recruit and the highest-ranked player to ever sign with a Horizon League team, turned down Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina to play for his father, Milwaukee head coach Patrick Baldwin.
At 6-foot-9, he can rebound and score in close like a typical big man, but he can also shoot, handle the ball and pass like a guard. The Panthers will use him in a variety of ways to try to create mismatches against the Gators. He’s off to a strong start this season, averaging 20 points and 10.5 rebounds in their first two games, though he is shooting just 38.2 percent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc.
“Patrick Baldwin seems like a great player,” Jones said. “Seems like he handles the ball a lot. I’m not used to people his size, his height, on the ball that much. So, I think we just have to lock into him, and he has great players around him, too. So, I think we have to lock in on him but also don’t forget about the others that impact the game. I feel like [if] we just play together like we did for Florida State, it’ll take care of itself.”
Guard DeAndre Gholston is another player to watch. He’s averaging 18 points and seven rebounds after leading the team in scoring last year.
Milwaukee is also one of the rare mid-major teams that will have a size advantage over Florida. Three of their starters are 6-foot-9 or taller, while the Gators will likely start three guards who are 6-foot-3 or shorter. They also have two seven-footers who will come off of the bench.
The Panthers have been really good on defense so far, limiting opponents to 33.8-percent shooting.
The Florida State win was monumental for the program. It snapped a seven-game losing streak in the series and got the Gators off to a hot start to the season, and it could prove to a big resume-boosting win come March.
But, if they don’t continue to play well, starting with the Milwaukee game, the FSU win will just be a highlight in an otherwise disappointing season just like the Auburn win was in 2020 and the West Virginia win was last season.
The Gators don’t just want to maintain the way that they played against Florida State; they want to kick it into an even higher gear.
“Before [White] even came in the locker room, we were saying, ‘Man, we didn’t even do our best,’” Jones said. “And that’s the scary thing about this team – we haven’t even played our best yet, and we just beat a good team in Florida State. I think we can just build for it. We have to keep getting better because we know once we hit our ceiling, I don’t think nobody can stop us.”