No. 14 Florida’s suffocating style evokes Gators’ 2017 Elite Eight team

·3 min read

Florida’s hard-nosed, suffocating approach is familiar, yet it’s also been minute for men’s basketball coach Mike White.

The Gators played a similar style during White’s finest hour.

Entering Wednesday’s visit to Oklahoma (6-1), No. 14 Florida (6-0) have much work ahead to match the school’s 2017 Elite Eight squad. But the Gators are off their best start since 2012-13 — two seasons before White arrived to replace Billy Donovan.

“One of tougher teams I’ve coached, for sure,” White said of his current group. “Our team that got to the Elite Eight ... had a lot of toughness, as well. Pieces are different, but this team has some similarities that give us a chance to be in the same neighborhood at least defensively.”

The Gators are 11th of 351 teams in defensive efficiency, according to analytics guru Ken Pomero, best since the ‘17 squad finished 5th.

While Florida strives to improve a turnover-assist ratio close to 1:1 (80 to 75) and overall offensive execution — the Gators shoot 43.4% — an airtight defense and reliable effort level are formidable building blocks.

“That is our identity,” senior forward Anthony Duruji said. “That is something we can fall back on.”

The Gators’ aggressiveness overwhelmed Florida State during a 16-point win — Florida’s first in the series since 2013 — and their resiliency erased a 10-point deficit to set the stage for Tyree Appleby’s buzzer-beating 3 against Ohio State.

“Every team has a different identity,” White said. “This team just happens to have that level of toughness. It’s what you strive for.”

Recent teams have displayed flashes, but also lacked the experience of the current Gators. Florida’s five starters and sixth man are transfers with four years or more in college.

Duruji began his freshman year at Louisiana Tech the summer following Florida’s 2017 Elite Eight run, transferred to Gainesville in 2019 and is in his second season as a starter.

“Most of us have a chip on our shoulder,” Duruji said. “A lot of us come from mid-majors or we never really won from where we came from. So having that chip on our shoulder and that grittiness is kind of what we carry and identify as a team.”

Team building through the transfer market is the future in college basketball and has proved a successful formula for White.

The Gators’ ranking is the highest since the 2019-20 squad was No. 6 during the preseason, and then lost two of its first five games (Florida State and UConn).

“Two years ago, we were the youngest Power 5 team in the country,” White said. “We’re one of the oldest now. You’ve got a group of guys that are really hungry — that didn’t have the same preseason expectation.”

Expectations are rising quickly and sure to test the Gators’ maturity and resolve.

“It’s nice,” Duruji said. “But never satisfied and get complacent.”

Two seasons ago, White worked every angle to convince his players to ignore distractions and the hype surrounding the Gators. Yet, Florida was 19-12 and unranked when the pandemic shut down the season.

These, days, the 44-year-old coach rarely pushes to provide perspective. So far, these Gators seem to get it.

“We spend a lot less time talking about it and we’ve handled it a lot better,” White said. “A lot of that just has to do with the age, the maturity of this group. I don’t think this game in Norman [Oklahoma] will have anything to do with us being ranked or unranked, or what have you.

“Our guys are more locked into, ‘How can we get better and how can we give ourselves a chance?’”

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