Mike White sat at a postgame news conference, looked down at the table in front of him and shook his head.
His 19th-ranked Florida Gators had just dropped a 68-66 home contest to Vanderbilt on Jan. 22, the team’s second loss in a row after opening conference play with a perfect 5-0 record.
White was confused, upset and a little agitated.
His team was at a crossroad, and White knew his team’s early success could easily derail if it didn’t find solutions quickly.
“I don’t know who our team thinks we are,” the second-year UF coach said at the time, “but we’re not that.”
Fast forward seven weeks and Florida is now a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, preparing for its opening-round matchup with No. 13 seed East Tennessee State on Thursday at about 3:10 p.m. at Orlando’s Amway Center.
It’s UF’s first appearance in the Big Dance since its Final Four run in 2014 under Billy Donovan and White’s first appearance overall as a head coach.
It’s a chance for a fresh start after ending the regular season with back-to-back losses.
And it’s also White’s first opportunity to break away from Donovan’s shadow, one that carries with it two national titles, four Final Fours and 10 total Southeastern Conference championships.
“To be a part of March Madness,” White said, “it’s awesome.”
For the holdovers on the roster from the Donovan era, the road to playing for their new coach was challenging.
What ensued was a 21-15 season in which the Gators went 9-9 in conference play, found themselves in the National Invitation Tournament and had trouble at points building a consistent team culture.
“It was a tough process,” forward Devin Robinson, a junior, said of White’s first season.
“I was with a whole different coaching staff [my freshman year] than what we have now. … There’s a lot of trust factors and a lot of uncertainty.”
For Robinson, the turnaround came following Florida’s season-ending loss to George Washington in the NIT quarterfinals.
For point guard Kasey Hill, the lone fourth-year senior on the team and the only player on Florida’s roster to play in an NCAA Tournament game, it came when White started sending daily text messages over the summer.
They weren’t about anything specific. It was moreso a sign that their coach was invested in his players away from the court.
“Everyone is more comfortable around him and talking to him,” Hill said. “We trust him.”
It has shown on the court.
There was the 8-3 start to the season as the Gators traversed the state of Florida while the finishing touches of the O’Connell Center’s $64.5 million facelift were being completed.
Six of those games came against teams that reached the NCAA Tournament.
There was the nine-game win streak that followed that Vanderbilt loss in January, a streak that included three consecutive wins by more than 30 points against Power 5 opponents, a 22-point win over Kentucky and a school-record 19 made three-pointers against LSU.
And there was the second-place finish in the SEC, a run that culminated in White being named the SEC Coach of the Year.
“It’s tough to follow a legend like Billy D,” said East Tennessee State head coach Steve Forbes, who spent five years as an assistant coach at Tennessee from 2006-11.
“… You have to give him a lot of credit for putting his stamp on the program.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas added: “The way his teams play, the way they respond to things … the fact that he’s in complete control of what he’s doing; he’s the real deal.”
White has another chance to make his mark on the program starting Thursday when his Gators (24-8) begin NCAA Tournament play against East Tennessee State (27-7).
The Buccaneers are the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament champions and are being viewed as a trendy pick to pull off an opening-round upset against Florida, which has lost three of its past four games and is 3-3 overall since starting center John Egbunu tore his ACL.
“They saw it, and they heard it,” White said. “That said, it can’t be a big factor for us. … Our focus needs to be on East Tennessee State.”