College basketball: Players-only meeting ignites Florida Gators' resurgence
GAINESVILLE -- College basketball coaches are often the most dominant personalities in their programs but University of Florida coach Mike White has an interesting theory: a message to players can often carry greater weight when it comes from their peers.
White is crediting the seeds of the Gators' four-game winning streak, capped by Saturday's record 88-66 rout over Kentucky at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, with being planted at a players-only meeting held two days after 24th-ranked Florida (18-5, 8-2) lost to Vanderbilt on Jan. 21, their second in a row and first this season to a team with a losing record.
In the game before that, Florida's offense deserted them in a dismal 57-53 loss to South Carolina in which UF went 0 of 17 from beyond the 3-point arc and had a season-high 16 turnovers. Vanderbilt exposed the Gators on defense, shooting .565 in the second half.
In the two-hour meeting, almost every player spoke. Nothing was off the table. Egos were parked at the door.
"We regrouped and talked out what we needed to do to be successful," said forward Devin Robinson, who had 16 points and nine rebounds against Kentucky. Now we are starting to get locked in."
And one good sign is that minutes after beating No. 8 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2) for the first time since the 2014 SEC championship game, the Gators were already looking ahead to Tuesday's game at Georgia.
"It's a big win but we have another quick turnaround," said point guard Kasey Hill, who had a career-high 21 points against the Wildcats. "We have to get ready for Georgia."
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And then it would be all about getting ready for the Bulldogs, who lost to UF 80-76 in overtime on Jan. 14, lost to Kentucky in overtime 90-81 last week, and fell to South Carolina 77-75.
Georgia has lost five of its last seven games but two were the overtime games against UF and Kentucky and two others were by one and two points.
"They're going to be hungry," White said.
The main topic of the players-only meeting two weeks ago was improving on defense and rebounding. After the loss to Vanderbilt, the Gators were last in the SEC in defensive rebounding (23.2 per game), 12th in overall rebounding (35.2 per game) and 10th in field-goal percentage defense (.428).
Although the conference statistics won't be updated until Monday, UF has averaged 35.2 defensive rebounds in the last four games, 49.7 rebounds per game and have a 14.5 rebounding margin.
The last four opponents have shot .347.
Kentucky entered the game leading the SEC in team rebounding at 40.8 per game. Florida out-rebounded the Wildcats 54-29, 17-6 on the offensive glass.
Was it desire? Positioning? Great scouting reports? Solid practices?
"I'm going to take the easy way out and say it was a combination of everything," White said. "Mainly, it was a re-committing to not being [out-rebounded]. The biggest focus, since these guys met with each other, was on defensive rebounding. And it's funny ... we've played our best offensive basketball."
With more second-chance points (Florida has outscored its last four opponents 68-33 after getting offensive rebounds), more defensive rebounds to trigger the transition game and better defense, the Gators have averaged 92.7 points over the last four games, 15.8 more than their season average following the Vanderbilt game.
White said he and his staff could have talked, cajoled and yelled until they were Gator blue and orange in the face. The message was much clearer to the players coming from their peers.
"All coaches want ownership and we've preached that a bunch," he said. "Obviously you will only be as good as your ownership and leadership. We tell them that all the time but it's one thing coming from me. Coming from teammates, sometimes it's stronger. The accountability from each other is stronger than me holding them accountable. We've been a different team in the last four games. Now, it's a matter of maintaining that."