I consider myself an avid college basketball fan. I know the coaches and the players and the stats and the storylines, and I know them well. I knew who new Florida coach Michael White was before writing him into our list of candidates to replace Billy Donovan
But I can't say I've ever seen his team play live.
So I reached out to Benjamin Miraski of SB Nation's invaluable Mid-Major Madness, who put me in touch with Underdog Dynasty. Over the last several days, we've had an email conversation about White and his Louisiana Tech program that I found enlightening, and what follows here is a (very minimally) edited version of that conversation. I want to thank Jason for his insight — and his patience.
What makes Michael White who he is?
I think you start with his time as a player under Rob Evans at Mississippi. They were competing with Kentucky and Arkansas in the mid to late 90's by implementing a break neck pace.
Mike was known as a tough guard and that translates to his team now. He doesn't just talk about playing fast, he will show a recruit the stats to back it up - things like turnovers forced and shot attempts per game.
Another interesting thing I've found comes from his time as an Ole Miss assistant. He was known as a relentless recruiter then and forged relationships all over the country. At Louisiana Tech, he didn't sit back and let his assistants do the heavy lifting when it came to recruiting. Mike still got out on the road and personally recruited kids like he did as an assistant.
So he's a hard worker, someone who doesn't shy away from the tough stuff? What are some of the specific things he's done that bear that out? Any particularly tricky recruitments?
The toughness factor you can see in his team. They got down big in the C-USA Tournament against UAB in a hostile environment (the game was played in Birmingham) and they were able to come back and force overtime. They never gave up on a game.
The biggest thing about recruiting is his ability to identify talent. He found Speedy Smith, Raheem Appleby, and Michale Kyser four years ago and they all had minimal recruiting interest. They were the cornerstones for his 101 wins over the last four years and hold several individual records — for a program that has had players like Karl Malone, Mike Green, P.J. Brown, and Paul Millsap, among others.
The best story to exemplify his ability to identify talent came from this time last year. He was trying to add defense and rebounding in the late period. He had to be almost stealth-like in who he was looking at because as soon as he moved in - other schools would pounce. Shane Henry (Virginia Tech), Devonta Pollard (Houston), Tevin Glass (Wichita State), and Detwon Rogers (Dayton) were all players he identified before losing them to "bigger" programs.
He ended up taking Merrill Holden and Qiydar Davis, two role players from top-level junior college programs.
At Louisiana Tech, there are always programs with bigger facilities, budgets, and fan bases to recruit against. He won't have that problem at Florida.
(White) showed an ability to land higher level HS recruits over the last three years as well. Alex Hamilton (Florida native), Joniah White, Xavian Stapleton, and Derrick Jean (Florida native) were all out of state high school recruits with solid offers that he landed in Ruston.
Tech didn't get kids like that in the past. The best players typically were North Louisiana kids (Malone, Brown, Millsap, etc...) from small towns.
And given that he's grabbed underrated guys and made them stars, he's definitely got some skills as a developer, I'd imagine.
I think so. Eric McCree (another Florida native) averaged maybe a point a game as a freshman at Murray State. After sitting out a season at Tech, he became one of the team's leading scorers and rebounders. Stapleton and Jacobi Boykins (Florida native) both progressed tremendously this year as true freshmen and had huge games down the stretch.
So this all sounds good for Florida. But there is that notable lack of NCAA Tournament appearances — and Louisiana Tech won regular season conference titles in the last three seasons. Why the struggles to break through in conference tournaments?
C-USA is a very tough league, maybe the toughest out of the "one-bid" leagues. It's hard to win 25+ games (in the regular season) and know you still have to beat teams like UTEP, Old Dominion, UAB, and Middle Tennessee in places like El Paso and Birmingham. A 14-team league with seven or eight good teams should have two bids in the tournament. Without Memphis, though, C-USA doesn't have the same reputation — but it is still a very good league with really good coaches.
Trust me, I get that — but the reality of being in a one-bid league is that winning the conference tournament becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. White's teams have come away with nothing. Is there any specific reason why other than bad luck and bad games on the wrong days?
I think his team's weaknesses get exposed more in the postseason. Most teams he can overwhelm with the defense and athleticism that he can put out on the floor.
His weaknesses — typically rebounding and half-court offense — are more glaring in a postseason game when the game slows down. He has addressed those needs in recruiting and improved on them, but you still have to be perfect in the C-USA Tournament (to earn a bid), and they were not perfect against a very good UAB team in Birmingham.
And I bet those weaknesses are more easily addressed at a program like Florida.
The Gators lacked shooters last year, something I know White is going to want, but it would seem to have the personnel to put together a trapping defense and a high-octane offense, most notably jet-engined point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. What did (2015 Conference USA Player of the Year) Speedy Smith do well, and how long did it take White to mold him into the excellent player he became?
Speedy was a reluctant shooter: Not until the end of his junior year did he start taking and hitting three pointers.
His vision, (along with) being 6'3", is his biggest strength. He is a great passer and could lead the player to the spot they needed to be. He is the absolute best at the alley-oop — mostly to (Michael) Kyser and Stapleton — and would throw them from anywhere once he crossed half court.
You could see the qualities in him that would make him great even back in his freshman year. But as the years went on, he learned how to refine his game: When to make those passes, how to encourage and pick up his teammates without frustrating them, when to take the open shots, when to force tempo.
Speedy was the absolute best in C-USA at beating the defense down the court and turning it into a score or drawing a foul. He can go from free throw line to free throw line in a blink.
That really sounds like both Hill and Chiozza, especially the last bit, and neither one was anywhere close to a great shooter last season.
What other traits make players successful under White?
He wants height, long arms, great leaping ability, and stamina: You have to be able to run all day. He will play 10 or 11 players, but for the 15-20 minutes you are in, you better be running, jumping, and diving for loose balls.
He highly values deflections and keeps up with them in both games and practices. The best comparison I like to make is Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell." Like Nolan, White will play with three-ish guards, a small forward type, and a long, skinny center that can block shots and run the floor.
White will be able to recruit more size at Florida, but he will still favor a smaller lineup a lot in order to get more quickness on the court.
What was the best win of White's time at Louisiana Tech, and why?
It may not be the biggest to most fans, but to me it was in his first year he took a young team to the WAC Tournament championship game. Beating Nevada, which had dominated the WAC for years, in the semis was a really big step forward for the program.
Some has been (and much will be) made of Louisiana Tech's superb home record under White. How was he able to create a program that could do that, and how did that affect fan support?
I think a lot of the home court advantage was the pressure defense and the noise. The TAC (Thomas Assembly Center) got loud anytime more than 3,500 or so showed up. It's hard to shoot well on the road in general, so teams usually didn't play well when the pressure defense was added to the mix.
And fan support shot through the roof. A lot of weeknight games against mediocre opponents would draw 1,000 fans or fewer in years past. 5,000 to 6,000 fans for a conference game was normal under White, and this is in a town of 21,000 people and an arena that holds 7,500.
That should translate well to the O'Dome. Dick Vitale didn't call them the Rowdy Reptiles because they're quiet.
What would have concerned you about White staying at Louisiana Tech, if anything? And when did you know he wasn't long for the program?
Nothing would have concerned me: He was building the program through mostly high school recruits, and I felt like he could have pushed Tech back to the level of a Gonzaga or a Butler — just like LA Tech was in the 1980s. (Thanks largely to All-Americans Karl Malone and Randy White, Louisiana Tech made five NCAA Tournaments from 1984 to 1991, and the program's only Sweet Sixteen in 1985. — Andy)
I knew after that first year that White wouldn't be at Tech long. No one, or almost no one, stays at a mid-major very long, and with his SEC ties and exciting brand of basketball, it was going to be a short run. He was getting major offers a year ago.
And as he goes, what will you remember best? What will you miss most?
I'm going to remember the wins against the major conference teams. The fan excitement and bubble watching as the season drew to an end. Playing and beating good teams in the NIT. But I will mostly miss the style of play, the alley-oops and the SportsCenter Top 10 appearances. That's one thing that kept the fans coming back for more.
Hopefully, they can bring in a mother good coach that can keep the train rolling.
And I hope all that good stuff translates to Florida. Thanks so much for helping out, Jason.
No problem. I think he will be great there, I really do.