ORLANDO — Florida’s Mike White was talking about the blue suit he had worn Thursday for his first appearance as a head coach in an NCAA tournament game.
“This is a good win for the suit,” he said. “It’s now 2 and 3.”
Someone asked why White would choose a suit with a 1-3 record for the most important game of his career. He said with a laugh, “Because it was clean.”
Clean or not, the suit might be back in action Saturday night, when the Gators meet Virginia in the second round of the East Region with a trip to Madison Square Garden for the Sweet 16 at stake.
Regardless, White’s suit coat won’t be seen much, because he shucks it as soon as the game begins. His opposite number, Tony Bennett, almost never takes his off during a game. But the two coaches look more like congressional candidates than basketball coaches.
The Cavaliers’ first-round victory over UNC Wilmington was the 10th in the NCAA tournament for Bennett, 47. White, who turned 40 earlier this month, is 1-0 in the tournament.
Underneath the impeccable suits, both can be sneaky funny, frequently when the subject is their clothing. Several years ago, after a disappointing first-round loss in the ACC tournament, Bennett was asked what good he could take away from the day.
He shrugged, looked down and said, “I thought my tie looked pretty good.”
White stepped into one of college basketball’s highest-pressure situations two seasons ago, when Billy Donovan left Florida to coach in the NBA. Donovan had won national championships in 2006 and 2007 and had been to four Final Fours. White had gone 101-44 at Louisiana Tech, but the trip from Ruston, La., to Gainesville, Fla., was a lot longer than the 735 miles in between. The days when an NIT trip is considered a successful season at Florida are long gone.
That’s where Florida was a year ago, reaching the quarterfinals before losing at George Washington — a game it would have played at home, except that O’Connell Center was being renovated. White had most of his key players returning, and he added Canyon Barry, youngest son of Hall of Famer Rick Barry, as a graduate transfer.
The Gators (25-8) split home games with SEC champion Kentucky but lost three times to Vanderbilt — twice by two points and once in overtime in the SEC tournament. In all three games, Florida had a chance to win in the final seconds.
“It’s got to be Bryce Drew,” White said Thursday afternoon after his team had pulled away to beat ETSU, 80-65. “He’s been haunting me for years.”
In the 1998, Drew made a 23-foot three-pointer as time expired to give Valparaiso a 70-69 upset of a fourth-seeded Mississippi team that included . . . Mike White.
Saturday’s game will be a contrast in styles: Bennett will tell you the most important thing his team has to do is slow down Florida to prevent the Gators from approaching their 78-points-per-game average. White will tell you just the opposite: His team has to get out and run because facing Virginia’s half-court defense is a nightmare.
“We aren’t going to be able to push the ball well off missed shots,” he said. “They’ll get back; it’s what they do best. We have to get some turnovers and score that way. Conversely, if we get too aggressive and give them easy baskets, we’ll be in trouble.”
Bennett stuck around to watch Florida play Friday afternoon and had a four-word comment on what he saw: “They’re long, very long.”
Actually, the Gators are a mix: Up front they have 6-foot-8 Devin Robinson, 6-8 Justin Leon and 6-9 Kevarrius Hayes — players whose wingspans allow them to play taller than they look. In the backcourt, they’re small: 6-1 Kasey Hill and 6-2 KeVaughn Allen start, and 6-foot reserve Chris Chiozza is a very good rebounder who usually plays early. Florida lost its leading rebounder, 6-11 John Egbunu, when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament a month ago against LSU.
As soon as the brackets came out Sunday night, experts were picking East Tennessee State as a first-round upset. White made sure his players were aware of it — repeatedly.
“If you’ve got eight bullets in your gun, you shoot ’em all,” he said. “I wanted to make sure the guys knew what people were saying about them. Anytime you can create an us-versus-them situation as a coach, you go for it.”
White and his wife, Kira, who was a volleyball player at Ole Miss, have five children between the ages of 9 and 2, including 7-year-old twins. Somehow, White doesn’t look tired a lot.
“I figured it out early,” he said. “From the day Rylee [the oldest] was born, I stopped going to movies, stopped playing golf, stopped going bowling, stopped fishing. I can honestly say I haven’t done any of those things once since we started having kids.”
He smiled. “Actually, I use that in recruiting. I tell kids’ parents, ‘Look, I only have two things in my life: my family and my basketball team. The only time I won’t be with your kids is when I’m with my kids.’”
All five White children were at Thursday’s game. So was their grandmother — Jane White — and one of his brothers and his sister. His father, Duke Athletic Director Kevin White, who is on the NCAA basketball committee this year, was not there. He was in Indianapolis as the committee’s on-site rep.
If Florida reached the East Region final, it could face Duke in Madison Square Garden for the second time this season. With a Final Four bid at stake, would his parents have mixed emotions?
“No, absolutely not,” White said. Then he paused. “Well, on the inside my mom might be rooting for me. But my dad would be all Duke. They pay him; I don’t.”
But seriously, someone asked, you really think your dad would pull against you?
White laughed. “Put it this way,” he said. “It’s a problem I’d like to have.”
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