Mike White loved Ole Miss, but returning to Oxford to play against the Rebels, a team he was a starter for four seasons in the 1990s, never seemed easy for him. White is humble and understated, so he didn’t like those games because the people who tell stories about those games often wanted to make a story about him.
So he’s bringing his Georgia Bulldogs (11-3, 1-0), even this rejuvenated riding version, to Exactech Arena/O’Connell for Saturday’s matinee against Todd Golden and the Florida Gators (7-7, 0-2) will very likely test White’s comfort level. It should not be. White left UF last March as the third-winningest coach in program history, leading the Gators to a 142-88 record (.617 winning percentage) and six wins in four NCAA Tournament appearances, the second-most by a UF coach behind Billy Donovan .
But for whatever reason, White went in search of something better last spring and found it at one of Florida’s biggest rivals. Now, 10 months since taking over Tom Crean’s train-wreck program that went 6-26 last season (including 1-17 in the SEC), White’s next win will match his entire ’21-22 win total.
Not bad. Also, not gloating.
“Business. That’s it,” White told reporters in Athens, Ga., Wednesday night after the Bulldogs upset 22nd-ranked Auburn when asked how he felt about returning to the O’Dome. “It’s a place that [wife Kira] and ourselves and ours [five] children, beloved. We had a great time there. I will always be grateful. I look forward to seeing family and friends; a lot of people in those stands that I can’t wait to see, that I care about. People throughout the community…”
Then came the coach’s disclaimer.
“Regardless, while the shoot is going on, I’m going to be locked in. I’ve got a model and when that thing comes out, we’re going down there to see if we can improve a little bit and see if we can put ourselves in a position to maybe steal one down the road. That is the name of the game in this league.”
[Read senior writer Chris Harry’s “Pregame Stuff” setup here]
It should come as no surprise that Golden and the Gators, including eight of White’s former players (six on scholarship, two decommissioned), would try to take the same approach.
“He’s coaching them well and doing what they need to do — but it’s going to be any other game,” the UF fifth-year student said. Colin Castleton, who played two seasons for White, including a second-team All-Southeastern campaign last year. “We have to win, that’s the bottom line, no matter who comes here, who trains, who plays. We have to win games.”
Yes, they are. UF is currently on a three-game losing streak, with each loss coming down to late-game execution the opponents have been better at. The Gators were within three points with just over two minutes left against Oklahoma at the Jumpman Invitational before Christmas and lost by nine. They were tied in a game with just over a minute left in Auburn and lost by three. They were tied with less than a minute left in Wednesday night’s home game against Texas A&M and lost by three.
In those games, it didn’t matter if the coaches on the opposite bench were Porter Moser, Bruce Pearl or Buzz Williams. And it won’t matter that White is on the away side on Saturday.
By the time the outcome of the game is decided, any awkwardness will be long over and any Florida fans craving their pound of White’s flesh (in whatever verbal form that may be) will be long over.
“We’ve got to take care of ourselves and make sure we do what we’re capable of doing to win the game,” Golden said Friday. “Obviously, there could be a little bit of extra motivation for some of our guys, but it’s definitely not going to be a point of emphasis from my perspective. For us, I want to make sure we focus on ourselves and what we do to do our best.”
The Gators did it on several fronts against A&M, especially when it came to shooting the basketball. UF shot nearly 47 percent from the floor, including 7-for-19 shooting from the 3-point line after going through a two-game skid of making just five of 41 long balls.
Unfortunately, on the same night they corrected some shooting mistakes, the Gators turned the ball over a season-worst 20 times (leading to 21 A&M points) and surrendered 13 offensive rebounds. Those second-chance opportunities allowed the Aggies to take 61 field goals (despite UF’s 44) and win the one-possession game despite shooting just 37.7 percent from the field, 12.5 percent from distance (2- for-16) and 64.3 from the free throw line.
“Against a team like A&M, you can’t do that and give yourself a chance to win,” Golden said.
For once, Florida’s pitching staff would like to see their players put together a solid, all-around game against a big opponent — UF has lost five straight to Power Conference teams — instead of playing “whack-a-mole” random areas that go from good to bad during a certain night.
There is a faction of the Gators (those in uniform), of course, who would love to do it against the guy on the other side on Saturday.
“Even the guys that don’t play as much, they’re still excited. They know what kind of defense he plays and they just want to beat him,” the junior guard Trey Bonham, who transferred to UF last offseason from the Virginia Military Institute. “[But] Coach Golden will definitely be involved [the emotions element] early. … I feel like he’s going to bite it in the butt and make sure we stay on our game.”
After all, as White said, it’s just business, right?