Coach Mike White has Florida 'playing through his eyes now'
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Mike White sees Billy Donovan every day on his way to work, just one reminder of the former Florida coach's lasting legacy.
A 10-foot, black-and-white picture of Donovan takes up the better part of one wall in the foyer of Florida's basketball facility, and all of the hardware the Gators claimed during Donovan's nearly two decades in Gainesville covers another. White passes two national championship trophies and six Southeastern Conference titles on the way to his upstairs office every morning.
For some, it would be a daunting commute.
For White, it's a motivational journey.
White embraced Donovan from Day 1, and after leading the Gators to the Sweet 16 in his second season, he's just as open - maybe even more honest - about the dubious task of replacing Donovan in Gainesville. No. 4 seed Florida (26-8) plays eighth-seeded Wisconsin (27-9) in New York City on Friday night.
''Someone had to follow him,'' White said Tuesday. ''Again, he made it a better job. It's the University of Florida. I'm not competing with Coach Donovan. I'm just trying to do the best job I can do, and my staff is doing the same, and we try to keep it that simple.''
It would be hard to question the job White has done with a program Donovan built before he finally took an NBA job with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The 40-year-old White has Florida two wins away from the Final Four, and he's done it with little NBA talent.
He took a mediocre team that missed the NCAA Tournament in Donovan's final year, re-recruited highly touted guard KeVaughn Allen, who is now the team's leading scorer, added a couple of key transfers in guard Canyon Barry and forward Justin Leon, and got the entire group to buy into his defense-first approach.
''Mike has them playing through his eyes now,'' South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. ''Last year, he was trying to get guys to see what he sees. Mike's got those guys playing through his eyes. As an opponent, it's fun to watch. It's not fun to play against, but it's fun to watch.''
White's philosophy wasn't much different than Donovan's - both believe in playing solid defense, being unselfish on the other end and letting everything else fall into place - which made the transition considerably easier.
''I'm sure that helped, that we didn't come in here and just say, `We're going to do everything completely different,''' White said. ''In fact, we tried to learn as much as possible about the way he was doing things.''
Florida players and recruits were admittedly unsure about White when they heard he was hired as Florida's coach in May 2015. White hadn't been a big-time player in college and had failed to make the NCAA Tournament in four years as head coach at Louisiana Tech.
''Should I stay? What should I do?'' guard Chris Chiozza said. ''We decided to wait to see who the coach was going to be. When we learned it was Coach White, we did a little research on him and saw he had a lot of similarities to coach Donovan, the way he coached and the way he liked to play.
''So we figured if coach Donovan recruited us to play this way, and this guy was going to do the same thing, we might as well stay.''
Chiozza, Allen, guard Kasey Hill and forward Devin Robinson - now the nucleus of the team - all agreed to stick with Florida. Those decisions paid dividends this year.
And Florida has looked as good as anyone through two tournament games, beating East Tennessee State and Virginia by a combined 41 points.
Hill and Chiozza have set the tone with their perimeter defense. Robinson and Leon have proven to be mismatches in transition. Kevarrius Hayes and Gorjok Gak have helped fill the void of injured center John Egbunu. And the Gators have played well despite getting little contributions from their top two scorers, Allen and Barry.
White, meanwhile, has managed to keep the team loose and motivated. Minutes before players took the court for their NCAA opener, White replayed video of a commentator picking against the Gators during the tournament selection show. Just before the second-round game, White had players cracking up in the huddle by screaming how much he liked a rap song they played earlier that day.
The moves were about what everyone had to come to expect from Donovan, who was a master motivator during his 19 years at Florida.
White is following a similar path, welcoming the comparisons, and even though he walks by those constant reminders of Donovan's daily, he's starting to step out of Donovan's shadow.
''A month from now when you have time to take a deep breath ... you might start considering some of the big-picture stuff a little bit more,'' White said. ''In terms of proving myself and our staff proving ourselves, we don't even get into that. We're fine. We're happy to be here.''
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