Who are these Gators? Maybe March will provide the answer

Florida coach Mike White watches his Gators against Arkansas during the SEC tournament quarterfinals. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Florida coach Mike White watches his Gators against Arkansas during the SEC tournament quarterfinals. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Published March 12 2018

Florida third-year coach Mike White won't know his NCAA Tournament opening-round foe until very late Tuesday, perhaps around midnight, which may be just as well.

No real sense in knowing your opponent if you're not certain which of your own teams will show up: the one that has buoyed your fan base (two wins vs. Kentucky) or the one that has befuddled it (two losses to Georgia).

"This team is very different in that last year going into games, I didn't always know if we were gonna make shots, but we knew what we were gonna get in so many different areas," White said Monday morning. "This year's Gator team can be very much a crap shoot."

At times this season, Gators (20-12) — who get the winner of Tuesday night's First Four contest between St. Bonaventure and UCLA — have looked capable of replicating last season's magical Elite Eight run. At others, they've resembled an NIT bubble squad.

Case in point: a three-game surge down the stretch, offsetting a three-game swoon that immediately preceded it. Such was the stupefying ebb and flow of the SEC slate. Fortunately for the Gators, they had fortified their resume in November and December with some solid non-conference wins (Gonzaga, Cincinnati).

The result is a No. 6 seed in the East. Now, if they can just learn the identify of their opponent — and themselves.

"Last year's group was special," White said. "We were elite defensively, we had great leadership and we had a bunch of edge to us. We were a very competitive group, and we were very consistent. We understood who we were defensively and on the glass, as well as the offensive glass.

"This current Gator team, we're very, very different and we've struggled with those consistencies and being as good as we possibly can be night-in and night-out."

Led by hardened veterans (Kasey Hill, Devin Robinson) and seasoned graduate transfers (Canyon Barry), the 2016-17 club allowed only two regular-season opponents to reach their season scoring average. This one allows 69.4 points a contest, which ranks 99th in Division I-A.

Additionally, the current team, hamstrung by the season-long absence of injured 6-foot-11 C John Egbunu, is averaging 35.1 rebounds (tied for 186th nationally). Last year's team averaged 37.1.

"What helped that (2017) team is the fact that you had a bunch of guys that … had a chip on their shoulder," said White, referring to the NIT season of 2016 and departure of beloved coach Billy Donovan the year before.

"We had a good group of guys that sold out to winning above all and not shots, points, minutes. And they hadn't experienced success at this level. … This year's group is a little different in that these guys have experienced success.

"These guys have had a bunch of positive headlines literally since last summer, and haven't always handled it the right way. We haven't always maintained edge and focus correctly."

But they have done it in spurts, as consecutive late-season wins against Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky proved. And the roster is speckled with veterans — namely junior KeVaughn Allen and 2017 Sweet 16 hero Chris Chiozza — who have experienced the mayhem of March.

Never too late for self-discovery.

Even crap shoots can produce big winners.

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