University of Florida

Florida Gators basketball coach blames himself for struggles in one key area

Florida’s coach Mike White reacts to a call during the second half of the Gators game against Cincinnati on Saturday.
Florida’s coach Mike White reacts to a call during the second half of the Gators game against Cincinnati on Saturday. AP

Mike White met with reporters Thursday and started as he often does: by asking members of the media contingent how they were doing. His friendly introduction masked the frustration he felt, but he let it spill moments later.

“I’m disappointed with the way we’ve defended,” he said, shaking his head. “It starts with me. I’m pleased that we’ve made some baby steps here recently, but we have to make a big jump. We do.”

The No. 22 Gators (6-3) will have that opportunity on Saturday when they travel to Sunrise to play Clemson (8-1) in the Orange Bowl Classic, but White isn’t so sure they’ll deliver. Which is why, when one reporter asked why UF’s struggles with transition defense start with him, White piled on.

“We probably needed to have four or five practices where the entire practices were on transition defense for three hours,” he said. “I didn’t know we would be this porous.”

In short, White didn’t see this coming. He knew Florida wasn’t stout defensively, but he didn’t foresee this level of defensive hardship. And for a while, that didn’t matter.

The Gators started the season as America’s best offensive team, averaging almost 100 points per game as recently as three games ago. But since an 87-84 loss to then-No. 1 Duke on Nov. 26, Florida’s scoring numbers have dropped. That continued this past weekend against Cincinnati.

The Gators, however, outlasted the Bearcats 66-60 to secure a win following an upset loss to Loyola-Chicago. White said he thought the win was a corner-turner because even though the Gators had a poor night shooting, they found a way to beat the nation’s then-No. 17 team. For the first time this year, UF relied on scrappiness over firepower.

But this week at practice, White said the intensity has vanished, leaving a defensive void that demands filling if Florida wants to contend.

“We’re not as hungry as we should be,” he said. “I don’t quite understand that.”

The problem is further complicated by the team’s lack of bodies in the post. With center John Egbunu and forward Isaiah Stokes both out with injuries until at least late January, freshman forward Chase Johnson has also missed time with a handful of small issues — headaches, stomach bug — and center Gorjok Gak has also missed practice with knee issues. That leaves center Kevarrius Hayes and forward Keith Stone as Florida’s only two big bodies in practice.

Guard Egor Koulechov has had to pick up some of that slack down low. He leads UF in rebounding with 6.9 per game. But he knows transition defense remains a problem.

“I know guys care and guys listen,” he said. “We’re trying our best every day. I think eventually we’re going to get better at that, but we’re working at it.”

That was pretty much White’s message. That his team’s transition defense is a work in progress. And even though he didn’t radiate optimism about fixing it, he preached hope.

“We’re gonna give it another swing today,” he said.