Mike White is unnerved following a legend.
It’s a good thing, too, considering Florida’s new basketball coach can’t escape Billy Donovan’s shadow.
Every day White goes to work he walks past a giant mural of Donovan inside the team’s practice facility. It’s a reminder of the responsibility he’s inherited to continue Donovan’s legacy, who left for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder after building Florida into a powerhouse with 14 NCAA tournament appearances and two national titles in 19 seasons.
“I point it out every time we have a recruit on campus,” White said. “Not that you need to. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen.”
With Donovan gone, newness reigns in Gainesville, and not just on the sideline.
White, formerly at Louisiana Tech, is energized by the task of replacing the irreplaceable, but he inherits a retooled-roster with eight players who didn’t wear a Gators uniform in a single game last season.
Although Florida still boasts plenty of talent, the Gators are picked to finish sixth in a deepening SEC because of so many unknowns.
“Everything is new,” junior guard Kasey Hill said — alluding to the team’s coaching staff, system and roster.
“Everything. But we also have in the back of our mind we had a bad season last season and we want to get out there and prove a lot of people wrong. We’re ready.”
UF does return five key contributors from a group that sputtered to a 16-17 finish last year. Florida missed the postseason for the first time since Donovan’s inaugural campaign (1996-97) and lost 11 games by seven points or less.
The Gators will once again rely heavily on versatile senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who White called the team’s “best player” and led UF in scoring (13.1 ppg) and rebounding (6.2 rpg) in 2014-15.
Finney-Smith is joined by lightening-quick guards Hill and Chris Chiozza, as well as forwards Devin Robinson and Alex Murphy.
In all, seven newcomers could play for the first time at Florida.
After sitting out last season, explosive redshirt freshman guard Brandone Francis-Ramirez (academics) and 6-foot-11, 255-pound center John Egbunu (South Florida transfer) are expected to make immediate impacts.
Expectations are high for freshman combo-guard KeVaughn Allen, too, while fellow rookie forwards Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes could fit into the mix as well.
Transfers Justin Leon and Schuyler Rimmer will vie for minutes, and junior swingman DeVon Walker returns to action after missing all of last year with a serious knee injury.
But change could actually be positive for the Gators, as a year ago they struggled mightily offensively (averaged just 63.7 points per game, woeful at the free throw line). White has installed his aggressive and attacking system that plays to the team’s strengths (depth, versatility, athleticism). The Gators will run, shoot more three and press relentlessly. With Egbunu eligible, White looks to reestablish an inside presence, too.
“It’s exciting,” Finney-Smith said.
“We’re getting up and down. You score more. It’s very exciting. … Guys are getting in great shape. We look good as a team so far.”
Florida opened last season with lofty expectations (a No. 7 preseason ranking), so the Gators are embracing flying under the radar to kick-start a new era.
Their non-conference slate remains challenging (Michigan State, Florida State, Miami, Oklahoma State, West Virginia), but they’re hungry to rid the taste of last year’s disappointment.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Robinson said.
“Nobody respects us as a program anymore. They think, ‘Oh Florida basketball has fell off.’ Little do they know that Florida is going to come out and play their hardest and try to win. We’re going to compete.”
Now that isn’t so new.
Florida’s 2015-16 roster
G KeVaughn Allen, FR., 6-2, 183; G Chris Chiozza, SO., 6-0, 175; G Lexx Edwards, RSR., 6-2, 220; C John Egbunu, RSO., 6-11, 255; F Dorian Finney-Smith, RSR., 6-8, 220; G Brandone Francis-Rameriz, RFR., 6-5, 205; F Kevarrius Hayes, FR., 6-9, 210; G Kasey Hill, SO., 6-1, 180; G Zach Hodskins, SO., 6-4, 203; F Justin Leon, JR., 6-8, 196; F Alex Murphy, RSR., 6-8, 225; C Schuyler Rimmer, JR., 6-10, 245; F Devin Robinson, SO., 6-8, 195; F Keith Stone, FR., 6-8, 233; G Jhonny Victor, RFR., 6-4, 178; G DeVon Walker, RJR., 6-6, 203
Florida’s 2015-16 schedule
Nov. 13 at Navy (Veteran’s Classic); Nov. 16 vs. North Carolina A&T; Nov. 21 vs. St Joe’s (Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic in Connecticut); Nov. 22 vs. Purdue or Old Dominion (Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic in Connecticut); Nov. 25 vs. Vermont; Nov. 27 vs. Florida Gulf Coast; Dec. 1 vs. Richmond; Dec. 8 at Miami; Dec. 12 at Michigan State; Dec. 19 vs. Oklahoma State (Orange Bowl Classic); Dec. 22 vs. Jacksonville; Dec. 29 vs. Florida State; Jan. 2 vs. Georgia; Jan. 6 at Tennessee; Jan. 9 vs. LSU; Jan. 12 at Texas A&M; Jan. 16 at Ole Miss; Jan. 19 vs. Mississippi State; Jan. 23 vs. Auburn; Jan. 26 at Vanderbilt; Jan. 30 vs. West Virginia; Feb. 3 vs. Arkansas; Feb. 6 at Kentucky; Feb. 9 vs. Ole Miss; Feb. 13 vs. Alabama; Feb. 16 at Georgia; Feb. 20 at South Carolina; Feb. 23 vs. Vanderbilt; Feb. 27 at LSU; March 1 vs. Kentucky; March 5 at Missouri