That was Mike White’s first thought as he walked through the doors of the Florida Gators Basketball facility.
Granted, it can be quite a sight, especially for basketball aficionados. Upon entrance, one is immediately greeted by a glass case full of benchmarks.
SEC Championship trophies and two very noticeable crystal basketballs, spoils from back-to-back national championships, line half of the circular atrium. An about face brings you to a face, as an entire wall is enshrined with the profile of one Billy Donovan, head coach for the Florida program from 1996-2015 and the man responsible for a large majority of the success shown in the facilities entrance.
Vaulted ceilings and a wall of floor to ceiling glass causes the slightest footstep to echo, in turn causing many visitors to speak in hushed and reverent tones. Whether intentional or not, it creates a sense of respect in a place that has every right to demand it.
And on the first day White stepped into this place, the first time he caught that sense of “wow”, it was as the man tapped to take the helm of the whole operation.
“It’s just an amazing place,” White told GatorCountry.com at a recent Gator Club meeting.
“It shows you what can be accomplished here. It’s a neat place to walk into every day.”
White came to Gainesville to be the head coach for the Florida Gators basketball program following Billy Donovan’s departure for the same position with the Oklahoma City Thunder of the National Basketball Association.
While also speaking to fans at the above-mentioned Gator Club, White told of his journey to the University of Florida, a place he says coaches want to be.
A Dream Destination
When athletic director Jeremy Foley first hired the young Donovan in ‘96, White was a rising point guard at Ole Miss.
When Donovan won back-to-back National Championships in 2006 and 2007, White was back at Ole Miss as an assistant coach, trying to learn all he could to climb the ladder.
His affection with basketball had caused him to take notice of Donovan and before long; he had a goal in mind. When Donovan took his next career step to the NBA, White was ready for the job in Gainesville.
“As a young basketball player…when Coach Donovan got the job here at Florida, and as a young assistant coach aspiring to be at a place like this, watching a guy like Coach Donovan and all the success he had as a young head coach, [well] we’re [now] both in a place that we respected and admired.
“The University of Florida, to me, has always been a destination job…. and I can’t tell you how excited I am to be apart of this…to have the opportunity to embrace the legacy that Coach Donovan built, to hopefully have the chance to build upon his accomplishments. To work in a gym every day where we have five Final Four courts up on the practice facility; it’s just incredible.”
The work in that practice facility is White’s sole focus for now, as he begins to implement his own schemes and process to a storied Florida Gators basketball program.
It might take a little bit more elbow grease than usual though, as the Gators are coming off of an uncharacteristic season having finished the 2014-2015 run at just under .500.
The Gators also lost three players with Michael Frazier II and Chris Walker’s exodus to the NBA and Eli Carter choosing to transfer elsewhere.
Frazier was one half of Florida’s top scoring duo. His counterpart had a chance at the NBA as well, one that many pundits believed he would take. Instead Dorian Finney-Smith elected to return to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for one last run at a title. He’ll now have to do that under a new head coach, but White, foreseeing the redshirt-senior forward’s importance to team success, has poured hours into making “Doe-Doe” feel comfortable with the transition.
“For Dorian to return is key because he’ll be one of the better players in our league and hopefully our leader,” says White.
“He’s a guy with a lot of experience and a lot of talent…He’s a guy that I’m in constant communication with, even when he’s home. I reach out to all our guys when they’re at home, at least and he’s a great guy. We hope he has a really big year. He should.”
Finney-Smith, along with redshirt-senior Alex Murphy, have responded well to that communication and taken to stopping by White and his staff’s offices to help facilitate the relationship needed for this team to move forward.
Seeing two of their leaders walking through his door, White hopes the younger guys soon follow.
“We encourage them to come by the offices a bunch. If you ask any of our guys they’ll tell you the same thing. Especially in a situation where you’re trying to fast track relationships and get to know your guys, we’ve challenged them several times, ‘Hey we don’t see you enough, come on by, we need to get to know you better.’ Throughout the summer, guys have gotten to where they come to the office a bit more.”
His ability to possibly “fast-track” these relationships though shouldn’t be surprising, considering how fast White likes to move in all aspects of basketball.
At 38, White checks in at eight years older than Donovan was when hired to Florida, but he is still relatively young in the head coaching sense, especially at a perennial powerhouse D-1 school like the University of Florida. But he has already moved quickly up the coaching ranks by proving he can win in an even shorter amount of time.
White was named the head coach at Louisiana Tech in 2011. By the time he departed for the Florida Gators basketball program in 2015, he had led the Bulldogs to three straight conference championships.
During those four seasons at LA Tech, the Bulldogs averaged 74.2 points, 7.4 3-pointers made, 14.0 assists, 8.4 steals, 4.9 blocked shots and 16.1 turnovers forced (seventh in the nation during that span).
Now he’s ready to see this play pick up for the orange and blue.
“It’s the way we want to play, at least to a certain extent, but those final decisions still are a ways away before they’re final. I do think we have some pieces that would be really productive in playing that way, led by two little guys that are really fast in Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill are really fast guys. I think overall we’ve a pretty athletic lineup and we are going to play fast for sure.”
That possibility is extremely exciting for redshirt junior Devon Walker, who said of White’s up-tempo style back in May, “It’s great, it’s great. Anytime you get to shoot the ball at least for me it’s great. It should be fun, a lot of shots go up and we should have a high scoring offense.”
Picking up the pace won’t just be regulated to the offensive side of the floor though.
Murphy already studied what might be to come by watching footage of White’s teams at LaTech.
“They play fast,” Murphy explained.
“They had some junkyard dogs. When they were in the press they would go take that ball from other teams. They averaged a lot of points. They created a lot of their offense with defense, turning teams over. Offensively, he let those guys play with a lot of freedom. Pretty similar to Coach Donovan, a lot of open court and dribble drive.”
White has seen the similarities to Donovan’s press style as well and plans to build upon it.
“You know the more I watch last years team, I didn’t watch Florida a ton last year, but their press was really productive. They had one of the better presses in the country defensively. I thought that they were really really solid. We will probably press on more occasions than last years team.”
This will take time though, something White is aware of, and something at least one fan is ok with…for now at least.
As White spoke to the Lake County Gator Club, one audience member began to breathe a little easier.
Evelyn Stark stood out while hardly being seen. A massive hat shadowed her small frame and the hundreds of tickets to Gator athletic events that were stuck in the hat only further drooped it onto her head.
Evelyn’s age isn’t known, because it’s never polite to ask a lady such a thing, but she does profess to being a loyal Gator fan since 1956. She has seen it all and thus has high expectations. And for now at least, Mike White is meeting them.
“I’m very impressed with him,” Evelyn told GatorCountry after the new coach was done with his speaking engagement.
“He’s very young…the fact that the team is coming together [is very comforting though] because you can’t have one person show off. Everybody’s got to be together and I think that’s the most important thing. I think we ought to win at least 70% of our games.”
White will attempt to honor Evelyn’s wishes, but he’s also willing to give her, and every Gator fan that ask, the same sort of brutal honesty.
“I just kind of tell it the way it is. We hope to have a better year. Our guys hope that as well…to me it’s more about, right now, the fall. Getting guys back and we have so much work to do before November, it’s hard to even talk about who we need to beat, when and where. I really don’t even know our schedule that well. I’m more concerned right now with workouts in the fall, and team chemistry. Finishing this transition and really schematically figuring out what we’re going to do as a team this year.”
A (Promising) Work in Progress
The schematics of transferring a new coach, new assistant coaches and a new(ish) style of play to guys that were already entrenched in the program can take time, sweat and a lot of sleepless nights. Add in NCAA rules that have still kept White and staff from having full practice access to their team, and things could understandably get stressful. But every now and then, White will hear the bounce of a ball that puts a bounce back in his step.
Late at night, holed up in his office on the second floor of the Florida Gators basketball facility, Mike White would be pouring over notes, game plans, anything and everything he could use to make his new team successful. He should be the only one there, especially that late at night. Many times he thought he was. Then he’d hear that unmistakable sound of a leather ball hitting the hardwood. A glance at the clock would show it to be 10-11 o’clock, sometimes even midnight. Leaving his work for a moment, he’d step out to the risers that overlook the practice court. There under the shadow of five Final Four courts that hang proudly on the wall, would be Kasey Hill some nights, Dorian Finney-Smith others; occasionally Chris Chiozza or one of the incoming freshmen. Individually on multiple nights, he’d find his players on the court, taking reps, finding that one way out of a hundred that they could improve their game; “earning the right” as he describes it.
With that bit of encouragement, he returns to his office, ready to prepare a team that can hopefully soon fill the front entrance with their own version of “wow”.
Below are quick notes that head coach Michael White gave on each individual player.
Dorian Finney-Smith (Redshirt Senior Forward): All league caliber guy this year. A guy that myself and my staff will look to for leadership and for a lot of communication.
Alex Murphy (Redshirt Senior Forward): A guy that we hope can build upon a bit of success he had this summer playing with the Finnish national team.
Kasey Hill (Junior Guard): Kasey’s terrific, a great young man, one of the fastest guards in the country. He’s earned the right to be successful.
Devon Walker (Redshirt Junior Guard/Forward): He’s got some Doe-Doe in him…He’s a really tough kid. He goes as hard in workouts as anyone we have.
Devin Robinson (Sophomore Forward): As talented as most guys in our league…We hope he can build on the success he had freshman year.
Chris Chiozza (Sophomore Guard): Good freshman year, solid freshman year, especially for a point guard… Chris has had a really good summer and we expect him to be a very good player for us.
John Egbunu (Redshirt Sophomore Center): If you haven’t seen him, [he’s] one of the more talented big guys in our league. Tremendous talent, great young man, 6’11” probably about 260 pounds right now. Plays above the rim, very very talented.
Brandone Francis-Ramirez (Redshirt Freshman Guard): Has had a really good summer…Plays very hard with a lot of heart and soul.
Schuyler Rimmer (Junior Forward/Center): Very very tough, he’s physical, and he’s got great leadership qualities. Note: Per NCAA transfer rules, he will be eligible to play following the fall 2015 semester.
KeVaughn Allen (Freshman Guard): Is going to be as talented a guard, as a freshman guard for sure, in our league. Phenomenal athlete, he can really shoot it as well. He’s got a bit of Brad Beal in him.
Kevarrius Hayes (Freshman Forward): Long (6’9”), energetic, really quick feet, really good at pressing, blocked shots. Another great young man.
Keith Stone (Freshman Forward): A South Florida kid, really talented offensively, he can really put the ball in the hole a lot of different ways. He can dribble, he can pass it. He can really shoot for a 6’8” guy.
Justin Leon (Junior Forward): JUCO transfer who we signed at LaTech and we were really excited about him as we thought [he was] the most talented player, and the best overall player that we signed in that class. Note: Has immediate clearance to play.