Florida basketball has some unknowns, but plenty to build upon after run to Elite Eight

NEW YORK — Standing in a concourse inside Madison Square Garden after his postgame media session Sunday, chatting further with a handful of reporters, Florida basketball coach Mike White talked about what the Gators accomplished this season.

He didn’t talk about the Elite Eight appearance, specifically. Or the 27 wins. Or putting Florida basketball back on a national stage.

No, he talked mostly about culture.

That’s been a major emphasis for White since he took over the program. First, he had to take an inherited roster and get it to buy into a new set of voices. Then he had to get it to translate onto the court into the selfless collective mentality with a relentless defensive approach that carried the Gators all the way to Madison Square Garden and the penultimate weekend of the college basketball season.

“We’ve got not only good young talent, we’ve got great kids now that have been a part of a culture recharge, a re-creation of the culture that coach (Billy) Donovan created here that obviously was very, very successful,” White said. “We didn’t make all the right basketball plays today, we didn’t make all the right basketball plays this season, but I’m really proud of where our culture is today.”

He wasn’t quite ready to evaluate where the roster is, though, looking ahead to 2017-18.

There are unknown variables, of course. Namely, whether forward Devin Robinson returns for his senior season or takes an opportunity to start his pro career. Robinson, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, said after the game he was motivated by the potential for another NCAA Tournament run, but he hadn’t made any decision yet.

Meanwhile, the Gators know they’ll lose senior point guard Kasey Hill, who keyed that aggressive defensive mentality but was erratic at times on the offensive end. They’ll also lose senior guard Canyon Barry, who ranked second on the team with 11.4 points per game, senior forward Justin Leon (7.4 PPG, team-high 18 points Sunday vs. South Carolina) and senior walk-on Schuyler Rimmer.

“I’ve got to think about who’s coming back, who’s not,” White said. “We’ve got a couple guys that are going to probably have decisions to make and I want what’s in their best interests. I want them to do what’s best for them period and then we’ll figure out who’s going to be on board with the Gators, assuming a handful of these guys return, assuming that I want all of them to return and they’re doing the right things on and off the floor over the next couple of months.”

It’s not clear what players other than Robinson have a decision to make. Assuming the rest return, what’s left is solid nucleus — albeit one with some obvious questions.

Chris Chiozza, who hit the buzzer-beater against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, is poised to take over at point guard for his senior season after averaging 7.2 points and 3.8 assists. Eric Hester should see a bigger role as the backup at that spot heading into his sophomore season.

KeVaughn Allen, the Gators’ leading scorer at 14.0 points per game (including a career-high 35 in that Sweet 16 win), may have to become even more of an offensive focal point.

Kevarrius Hayes (6.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG) would give Florida a veteran presence at center after taking over as the starter down the stretch following John Egbunu’s season-ending knee injury. It’s unclear how much the Gators will be able to get from Egbunu next season as he tore his ACL on Feb. 14. With the standard recovery time for such an injury generally set at nine months, that could mean working Egbunu in mid-season assuming he progresses well.

Florida would also have 6-foot-11 sophomore Gorjok Gak as an option off the bench at center as he continues to develop.

Meanwhile, Keith Stone (3.6 PPG) would have to become more of a factor after showing moments of promise as a redshirt freshman. He could slide into either the 4 or 3 spot.

Getting Robinson back would be a huge boost for the Gators and make this puzzle easier to piece together, as he would project as the clear secondary offensive option next to Allen with the rest of those options hard to project.

Jalen Hudson, a 6-foot-6 junior guard, will join the mix after sitting out last season following his transfer from Virginia Tech, where he averaged 8.4 points as a sophomore starter.

Along with the incoming freshmen, Dontay Bassett, a 6-foot-9 forward, is another option after redshirting this season due to a preseason stress fracture in his foot.

“It’ll be tough to get back next year. It’s tough for everybody. But we’ve got a taste of it. I’m sure this will give us confidence leading into the offseason,” White said. “Again, I think there’s more buy-in to the culture now that’s been re-created. Our guys know what’s expected of them. And we’ll continue to add recruits to the mix, these guys will continue to develop, doing the right things off the floor.

“Our league is going to be, on paper, in my my opinion going into the next season, really, really good, and hopefully we’re one of those teams that does all the little things to do enough to be back here.”

As Chiozza said, the Gators got as far as they did by building a chemistry and balance that allowed them to overcome the loss of Egbunu and cold streaks for one particular player or another, all while the collective effort remained steady and dependable.

Re-creating that goes hand-in-hand with rebuilding the rotation, but the players feel they can build off their successes this season.

“I feel like we came together this year and got Florida back to where it’s been in the past. We’re just going to try to continue to do that and get better each year and become one of those elite schools every year again,” Chiozza said.

Said Hayes: “I’m proud of everybody in here. We’ve all put in some piece, some effort, some bit of ourselves just to get here and that’s probably why it hurts the most, because it was like a team effort to make it here, and just to have to go home right now is kind of saddening. … (But) I feel like we’re going to come back stronger.”

While creating that culture within the team may be what White is proudest of this season, the Gators’ success and NCAA Tournament run also did a lot for outside perception.

Fair or not, White still had plenty to prove in his second year since taking over the program from Donovan, and he and his staff definitely garnered a lot of confidence this season.

That should only help on the recruiting trail and the momentum outside the locker room.

“The calls and texts have been returned a little bit quicker, for sure. Our reception has continued to warm. I think kids and families and coaches, they’re not only excited about just the fact that we’re winning, but they see these guys developing,” White said. “Recruits and families that have come to campus and been in our locker room, they like our guys. They like what our culture is about right now. It will only continue to improve.”

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) From left, Florida's Kevarrius Hayes, Justin Leon, Devin Robinson and Chris Chiozza during the Gators' Elite Eight loss to South Carolina on Sunday in Madison Square Garden.

Resilient South Carolina Ascends Into the Basketball Ether

In the moments after South Carolina clinched the first Final Four berth in team history, Coach Frank Martin found his 74-year-old mother, Lourdes, and finally let down his guard. The scowl softened. The lips that breathed fire now curled upward in stupefaction.

“He told me, ‘I’m so happy, but please don’t cry,’” Lourdes Martin said. “But he was crying, too.”

The tears were unstoppable. They misted the eyes of forward Chris Silva, who went up into the stands to hug his family; of Martin’s wife, Anya, wearing an oversize garnet T-shirt reading “Cut The Net”; of Darius Rucker, the rocker born in Charleston, S.C.

Their shining faces offered versions of the same sentiment: How could this be happening? How could South Carolina, a No. 7 seed out of a football conference, have crashed the biggest stage in college basketball?

Indeed, meet the Gamecocks, who toppled second-seeded Duke, third-seeded Baylor, and now, on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, Florida, the No. 4 seed. In the first matchup between Southeastern Conference teams in the round of 8 since 1986, South Carolina got the better of its rival, 77-70.

The Gamecocks, winners of the East Regional, became this year’s second newcomer to the Final Four, joining Gonzaga, a top seed that advanced on Saturday. They will face each other on Saturday in Glendale, Ariz.

The Bulldogs, at least, had often been on the doorstep. Before this four-game run, South Carolina had not won an N.C.A.A. tournament game in 44 years. Some were not sure it had even deserved an at-large selection this year, having lost six of its final nine games.

But once in, the Gamecocks rediscovered the defensive tenacity that was their staple. They knew their intensity could be unsettling to some teams, that if they found a rhythm offensively, they could go far. But this far?

“Not at all,” guard Rakym Felder said. “To be honest, not at all.”

Florida was not going to quake before South Carolina’s defense, though. The Gators had already faced it twice this season, winning the last matchup by 15 points on Feb. 21. But with only 37 hours since Florida’s overtime win over Wisconsin, which ended early Saturday morning, fatigue was going to be a concern.

It did not seem that way in the first half, when Florida’s hot shooting carried it to a 40-33 lead. The Gators went 7 of 12 from 3-point range, and their length inside and quickness on the perimeter were giving the Gamecocks problems.

For nearly eight minutes in the locker room at halftime, South Carolina players sat waiting for Martin to enter and scream. Instead, he let them try to figure things out on their own. The players spoke to one another calmly, repeating one word: relax.

“We tend to always come out too juiced up for big games like this,” the senior guard Duane Notice said. “Once we settled in, we knew it was going to be all right.”

Finally, Martin entered. He had always vowed to handle things differently the next time he had a chance to go to the Final Four. He blamed himself for Kansas State’s failure to advance out of the round of 8 in 2010, when he was the Wildcats’ coach.

He had committed a cardinal sin, by his standards, in the day between the round of 16 and the round of 8: He had lightened up his intensity in practice.

“I told myself, ‘If I’m ever in the same situation, I’ve got to practice our guys the way that we have trained for six months,’” Martin said Saturday. “Not any way differently.”

With his team down by 7 points on Sunday, Martin needed to tap every last resource of energy his team had. He has an image he likes to evoke in times like this — an image of a rope being strained in a tug of war.

“We’re in a difficult moment right now,” Martin told his players. “Hold on to that rope. Don’t let that rope go.”

They did not. As great as Florida shot the ball in the first half, the Gators went cold in the second, missing all 14 of their attempts from 3-point range. A stretch of 10 straight missed field goals by Florida enabled South Carolina to take the lead with 11 minutes 28 seconds remaining.

“For whatever reason,” Florida Coach Mike White said, “in the second half, we couldn’t match that same defensive intensity again.”

It would remain close until the final minute, but two turnovers by Florida killed any chance of another miraculous ending. Sindarius Thornwell (26 points) and P. J. Dozier (17) led South Carolina, while Justin Leon (18 points) led Florida.

Martin climbed up to cut down the net as Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” played. He had started his career as the interim coach for a junior varsity team in Miami, Lourdes said, still dabbing at tears.

“He was born to coach,” she said.

And in the locker room, the South Carolina players were already trying to envision what a crowd of 70,000 fans in Glendale might look like.

Said Notice, “I can’t even picture it.”

Florida hires Cameron Newbauer from Belmont as women’s basketball coach

The Florida Gators will hire Cameron Newbauer as the athletic program’s next women’s basketball coach, two sources close to the situation confirmed to OnlyGators.com on Monday. Florida announced the hire later Monday.

Newbauer has coached the Belmont Bruins for the last four seasons, leading the team to a 51-14 record (29-3 Ohio Valley) over the last two campaigns. Belmont has won consecutive regular-season crowns and conference tournament championships, earning the program’s second and third bids to the NCAA Tournament.

“Cameron Newbauer brings energy, vision and an incredible work ethic to the University of Florida. In addition to developing well-coached teams, he’s a hard-charger when it comes to recruiting and fan engagement,” Scott Stricklin of his first coaching hire since becoming the Gators’ athletic director. “He’s coached in our league with Georgia and coached in the Final Four with Louisville. As a head coach, Cameron’s built the Belmont program and led them to back-to-back NCAA berths. I share his confidence that he can build Florida women’s basketball into a conference and national contender, and look forward to Cameron, Sarah and their family joining the Gators.”

After playing for two years at Madonna College at Michigan, Newbauer became a student assistant at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne. He began his college career as director of men’s basketball operations for Siena (2001-03) before taking a job as graduate manager for Georgia men’s basketball (2003-04). Newbauer moved back to Siena as assistant coach under Rob Lanier (2004-05) and then returned to Georgia as men’s director of basketball operations (2005-07). (Lanier was later an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida from 2007-10.)

It was at that point that Newbauer moved over to women’s basketball, remaining at Georgia as an assistant under Andy Landers (2007-11). He then joined the staff at Louisville where he coached from 2011-13 prior to being hired by Belmont.

Newbauer is the first male head coach of Florida’s women’s program in its 42-year history.

On the attraction of the University of Florida

“It’s the University of Florida. That’s the excitement for me. A national brand. One of the most revered athletic programs in the nation,” he said.

“It’s an incredible challenge. That’s why I love it and want to embrace it. The Southeastern Conference is the best conference in the nation. All sports, let alone women’s basketball. It’s an absolute dream come true for me. I’ve worked and been blessed and fortunate to have opportunities come my way. This opportunity is going to take a lot of hard work and diligence, but it’s one I’m proud to have in front of me.”

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