After the season that Florida men’s basketball had, it closed out well. The Gators beat now-Sweet 16 bound LSU in the SEC Tournament to remove all doubt about their dance ticket, won a game over a good and experienced Nevada team, and hung with the 2-seed Michigan for more than a half. Given what the team did for a lot of the year, that’s not a bad way to end the campaign.
As they did during the season, Gator fans are arguing now that it’s over whether Mike White is the right guy to lead the program. I will say this much: Florida isn’t a place that fires its men’s basketball coach after three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, especially without a loss to a worse seed in the last two. It’s just not. I know Gator fans would rather have to wonder which seed they’ll get in the tournament rather than whether they’ll get in at all, but one bubble-riding year was never going to get White a pink slip.
Plenty of other media outlets have done a comparison of the first four seasons under White versus Billy Donovan (and on at least one site Lon Kruger), so I won’t. The situations aren’t that comparable anyway. Florida was nothing before Kruger, and despite his surprise Final Four trip, he didn’t establish the program as a real power. Donovan really did have to build it up into a top tier basketball school, and White got to benefit from that in a way Donovan didn’t from the Kruger era.
I will remind you, though, that after Donovan’s run to the national title game in his fourth season, he didn’t make it out of the first weekend of the tournament for five straight seasons. Only one of those seasons saw a double-digit loss total, something White has had three of his four years, but A) college basketball teams played fewer games per year in the early 2000s than they do now, and B) Donovan faced much softer non-conference schedules.
All four of White’s non-conference slates rated top-50 nationally according to KenPom, two of them top 20. The earliest years that KenPom covers, 2002-05, had UF in the triple digits in all of them and No. 265 in the last of them. Donovan’s first title team in 2005-06 that won its first 17 games faced the No. 320 (out of 334) rated non-conference schedule. Again, we’re not entirely comparing apples and oranges here.
Even so, some of those five squads that couldn’t manage even the Sweet 16 have some valid parallels to now.
The first two still had a lot of the leaders of the 2000 title run team like Udonis Haslem, Matt Bonner, and Brett Nelson. After they largely left — Bonner was still around for the third year in this stretch — the team belonged to the trio of Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh, and David Lee.
You’ll not find me speaking ill of Lee, at least. He was as good as advertised and was robbed of 2005 SEC Player of the Year by the voters who chose LSU’s Brandon Bass instead. The only regret I have of him is the same I have for Chris Doering: that he ran out of eligibility a year too soon to participate in a national championship team.
Roberson and Walsh though… ugh. The former was a ball-dominating point guard of the kind that was in vogue in the early 2000s. The latter was a high-scoring small forward who didn’t always love to do the things that weren’t scoring. Teamwork was not their forte.
The Roberson/Walsh teams never were bubble teams, but they weren’t always watchable and all crashed hard out of the tournament. UF lost by 22 as a 2-seed to 7-seed Michigan State in 2003, lost by 15 to Manhattan in a 12-5 upset the following year, then lost by 11 to 5-seed Villanova as a 4-seed in 2005. The last of those teams was good enough to win the SEC Tournament, but it still couldn’t get past the first weekend of the big dance.
Teams tend to go as their top scorers do, and those two didn’t cut it as team leaders. When it came to crunch time in March, their squads were rendered less than the sum of their parts.
These past two Mike White teams that exited from the tournament early will probably be thought of as the Jalen Hudson/KeVaughn Allen teams in the same was those old teams were the Roberson/Walsh teams. They weren’t everything, of course; 2017-18 still had Chris Chiozza and brought in 3gor, just like Lee was a big part of those earlier teams too.
Hudson and Allen aren’t a mirror image of Roberson and Walsh, to be sure. They had the opposite problem. You could always count on Roberson and Walsh to take lots of shots, almost in competition with each other. Hudson spent much of this past season in a scoring funk, though, and Allen would disappear for long stretches throughout his career. Their teams also ended up less than the sum of their parts.
It’s easy to forget, but Donovan missed the NCAA Tournament not once but twice in a row after the back-to-back titles. Those were the Nick Calathes teams, and they also struggled because Nicky Baskets turned out to be good but not the kind of player you could build a tournament team around. Less than the sum of parts.
So as this year’s senior class moves on, Florida has a chance to find a new fit for the puzzle pieces, one that might work out better. The freshman group of Nembhard, Locke, and Johnson are promising, and the tenth-ranked recruiting class with a pair of 5-stars is coming next year. They’ll also get one more year from Keith Stone once he’s fully recovered from his ACL tear. If any of this past season’s sophomores can step it up as underclassmen, Florida will be much improved.
We won’t know for months whether this new core will gel into something cohesive and great, but the last one didn’t with Hudson, Allen, and the limited Kevarrius Hayes as the leaders. Basketball rosters are small, and sometimes you end up with a year or two with a core that doesn’t quite work. It happened to White just as it happened to Donovan a couple of times.
If nothing significant comes of this new core, then we can start to wonder how long White will be around. Not before.