GAINESVILLE | A basketball coach facing the loss of four-fifths of his starting lineup ordinarily might be a bit apprehensive about the start of the season.
Mike White, however, has already established a re-load mentaltiy entering his third season as the University of Florida’s coach.
The 2016-2017 Gators were was filled with veterans but also filled with questions about whether White and his way of doing things was the answer after UF went 21-15 and was bounced out of the NIT quarterfinals the year before.
Optimism reigns at a much higher level than this time last year.
“We have a much higher level of buy-in,” White said during a news conference last week, referring to the transition from Billy Donovan’s regime to a new era of Gator basketball. “The commitment to each other and the program was just at a different level than the previous year … not as much drama, for sure.”
White also said there are higher expectations, starting with the season opener on Monday against Gardner-Webb (7 p.m., ESPNU). The Gators were 27-9 last season, finished second in the SEC and won three NCAA tournament games to make the Elite Eight for the first time since 2013-2014.
Only the season unfolding will tell White what kind of team he has. But fans believe Gator basketball is back and Donovan’s bar – two national championships – is still sitting symbolically over the heads of every UF team to follow
“It doesn’t mean we’re as good, it doesn’t mean we’re the same type team,” White said. “But we’re also dealing with the expectations piece that we didn’t deal with last year, if we allow it to creep in. That’s the charge, to not allow it to become an issue, to have the same mindset as we had this time last season – for it to be about our growth and our process and simply improving every day.”
Although the Gators lost forwards Devin Robinson and Justin Leon and guards Kasey Hill and Canyon Barry, there’s no reason to believe all of those holes won’t be plugged, or perhaps improved.
Junior KeVaughn Allen, the team’s leading scorer last season, and senior Chris Chiozza could be the best starting guard team in the SEC. Junior center Kevarrius Hayes of Live Oak has continued to improve every season and his backup, sophomore Gorjak Gak played his best in the post-season. When center John Egbunu returns from a knee injury in January, the Gators will automatically get bigger and more physical up front.
Two of the most intriguing players will be transfers Jalen Hudson, a junior from Virginia tech, and Ego Koulechov, a graduate senior from Rice.Both are prolific shooters and Hudson had five 20-point games with the Hokies, with a career-high of 32 against Wake Forest in the 2015 ACC tournament.
“He can really score that thing,” White said of Hudson’s shot-making ability.
When healthy, sophomore Keith Stone flashed last season. Two freshmen who might help immediately are forwards Chase Johnson and Deaundre Ballard, two ESPN top-100 recruits.
“This team is more bought in,” Hayes said of White’s philosophy and style. “We understand the culture we’re trying to build.”