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It took some time for the Gators to buy into what Mike White was preaching. After long-time Florida head coach Billy Donovan left to the Oklahoma City Thunder after the 2014-15 season, White inherited a roster largely comprised of guys that Donovan either coached or recruited.
His first year with the program was a roller coaster. Florida went just 21-15 (9-9 SEC), seeing its season come to an end in the NIT quarterfinals. After four consecutive Elite Eight trips from 2011-14 and a Final Four berth in 2014, the Gators had failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
But over the course of last offseason up until now, what has been a well-documented transformation has taken place. Florida began assuming the identity that White envisioned from his roster as the coaching staff and its players grew closer, and the Gators finished the year with a 27-9 record (14-4 in SEC play). Under White’s leadership, everybody on the Gators roster besides Kasey Hill (including White himself as a head coach) reached the Elite Eight for the first time in their careers.
That successful journey, however, ended Sunday afternoon when No. 4 seed Florida fell to No. 7 seed South Carolina 77-70 in the East Regional in Madison Square Garden in New York City as the Gamecocks advanced to their first ever Final Four.
“Obviously very, very heart breaking,” White said. “To make it this far, you're right there with a chance to go to the Final Four, you're up seven at halftime, doing some good things and really we weren't playing our best basketball in the first half. We had a bunch of turnovers, we were sped up, we had some lack of communication.
“But that doesn't take away from what these guys have accomplished. I'm really, really proud of these two guys, for putting Florida basketball - for putting us back in the right direction, for everything that they have accomplished this year, not only on the court, but off of the floor. These are great young men, who have grown as people, been model citizens, been awesome to work with.”
In his second year with the program, White, the 2016-17 SEC coach of the year, escaped the shadow of Donovan and carved out his own lane. It took Donovan’s team four years to reach the Elite Eight, during a 2000 season where it reached the national title game. White’s group earned a trip to the Elite Eight in just his second season.
The adversity was presented right away for White’s group this season. Florida had to play its first 11 games of the 2016-17 season away from home as the O’Connell Center finished undergoing renovations, but the Gators went 8-3 during that stretch with losses to quality teams in Gonzaga, Duke and FSU.
“These guys, we're flying and driving all over the country and these guys overcame that and it was never an issue,” White said. “Never a complaint. Not boo out of him or him.”
Under White, the Gators emerged once again as one of the SEC’s premier teams in 2016-17, along with Kentucky, South Carolina and Arkansas. KeVaughn Allen continued to blossom as a scorer and into an All-SEC first-teamer, while Kasey Hill’s erratic Florida career saw him cap it off with what was his most impressive campaign as a Gator. Hill took his game to new levels on the defensive end of the floor, becoming an All-SEC defensive team selection by regular season’s end.
“Kasey Hill's adversity with what he's been through in this four years, it's been unbelievable for him just to say over these last couple coaches, I just want to help you get back to the tournament,” White said. “I want to help Florida get back in the tournament. He was this close to a Final Four. He goes to an Elite Eight.”
A graduate transfer out of College of Charleston, Canyon Barry captivated Florida fans with his tenacious play and underhanded free throws en route to earning SEC sixth man of the year honors. Chris Chiozza turned it around during the second half of the year, showing improvement as a shooter while engraving his name in the program record books forever with his buzzer-beating three against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
Starting at both forward spots for much of the year, Devin Robinson and Justin Leon each carved out roles this season and helped the Gators in the quest to return to the Big Dance. 2015 signees Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone, as well as 2016 recruits Gorjok Gak and Eric Hester and walk-on center Schuyler Rimmer, each made nice contributions from time to time.
Florida would go on to win seven straight games during the year and follow that up with a nine-game streak, but in the midst of that the Gators took a big blow when John Egbunu suffered a torn ACL against Auburn on Feb. 14. Suddenly, the Gators lost a key defensive piece and an effective rim protector.
Shortly after losing Egbunu, the Gators won go on to lose three of their final four games before the NCAA Tournament, including twice to Vanderbilt – the latter time in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. However, the Gators would bounce back with a strong opening weekend in the NCAA Tournament, with two impressive victories against East Tennessee State (80-65) and Virginia (65-39) in Orlando.
Then arrived arguably the best game of Florida’s 2016-17 season – a thriller against Wisconsin that saw Chiozza net the final bucket at the buzzer to win 84-83 in overtime in spectacular fashion late Friday night.
“Hectic, whirlwind, exhausting, gratifying, exciting, emotional. I wish they were all like the other night. Rewarding,” White said of the past two weeks. “It's been a great group to work with and to see them have the success that they have had, knowing how much they have worked, knowing the adversities that they have had to overcome.”
Added Leon: “A lot of things I learned, just to never give up regardless of the circumstances. Things may not go your way, but you never know what you'll be capable of, you just keep going. I felt like that because I know a lot of people didn't think, didn't have us going this far at the beginning of the season, probably didn't even have us making the tournament. So and we just faced adversity and just got to be tough and keep moving forward, just like now."
Under White’s leadership, the future of Florida men’s basketball looks bright – and that’s thanks to a 2016-17 campaign where the Gators took a big step in the right direction.
“These guys, there's just been no drama this year,” White said, “and I've never been a part of that. In 17 years not to get one call at midnight that your guys did something crazy or not to have to breakup a fight in the locker room or deal with man, I'm going to transfer if I don't play more. You know, our culture is back to where it needs to be to just to give us a chance.”
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