After the Florida Gators men’s basketball team’s latest resounding triumph on Tuesday, even the clarions of conventional wisdom sounded the truth.
Mike White will be the SEC’s Coach of the Year.
The easiest award to project in the next few weeks? SEC Coach of the Year. Florida's Mike White is an absolute lock. Gators are rolling.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 22, 2017
Between them, ESPN’s Dick Vitale and CBS’s Jon Rothstein have tweeted about two original thoughts on college basketball in five years — Rothstein’s eco-friendly tweeting, in particular, recycles nothing but what everyone else has already said, in less interesting terms. And if they agree on something, like White’s candidacy for SEC Coach of the Year, that something must be blindingly obvious.
Of course, White’s case for that honor is exactly that.
Florida has improved dramatically in his second season with the Gators, going from sub-.500 team in SEC play in 2015-16 to a 13-2 mark that has featured victories over every SEC outfit but Vanderbilt, and from the cusp of NCAA Tournament contention and the mid-30s in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency-based rankings to the conversation for a top-three seed and a top-five perch in KenPom. (Florida is outscoring opponents by more than a tenth of a point per possession more than it did in 2015-16 — and it outscored opponents by nearly 0.17 points per possession last season!)
White has engineered this improvement despite losing leading scorer and rebounder Dorian Finney-Smith to the NBA — where his 20.8 minutes per game for the Dallas Mavericks ranks 10th among rookies — and effectively replacing him with only Canyon Barry and Keith Stone. There was no great talent infusion for these Gators, just development of players and adaptation of and to White’s system over the course of his 19 months in Gainesville.
Florida has been largely healthy, but has also dealt well with bad injury luck. It lost massive center John Egbunu to a season-ending injury one week ago, but is 5-0 when Egbunu has not played this season. Sometime leading scorer and superb sixth man Barry has missed one game and played spectrally and sparingly in another, and Florida has scored 93.5 points per contest in those two games. (One sign of Florida’s balance? KeVaughn Allen wrested away the leading scorer title from Barry by pouring in 26 points against South Carolina on Tuesday.)
Thanks to the disruptive renovations to the O’Connell Center, Florida has played just nine home games — fewer than any team in the RPI top 50 other than UT Arlington, a mid-major monster which could not convince a team better than Texas Southern to play on its home floor in non-conference play — to date; its 10th, next Wednesday, might conclude with the Gators cutting down the nets.
Florida’s 15 wins away from home this season also dwarf the totals of most other national powers. Undefeated and No. 1 Gonzaga has 13 wins away from Spokane, including one over Florida in Orlando, and battle-tested defending national champion Villanova has 13 wins away from its home gym, including a “neutral-site” win over fellow Big Five school La Salle in Philadelphia, and those two teams are Nos. 1 and 2 in KenPom, leading national championship contenders, and mortal locks for No. 1 seeds. No other team in the RPI top 30 has more than 11 wins away from its own friendly confines, and only Villanova and St. Mary’s have more true road wins than Florida’s eight, with nine each.
All those stellar credentials might matter less than one would hope when determining SEC Coach of the Year if voters focus on conference play, sure. But White’s Gators have almost inarguably been the SEC’s best team so far, too.
After Florida’s demolition of South Carolina on Tuesday, the Gators are outscoring SEC opponents by just more than 0.18 points per possession, the top mark in the conference. Kentucky is second in that category, topping foes by just more than 0.16 points per possession. Florida and Kentucky stand well apart from the rest of the conference in this regard: The Gators and Wildcats are the only two teams in the league in the top three in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, and no other SEC team is outscoring conference foes by more than the 0.06 points per possession that South Carolina is mustering with its combination of suffocating defense and sputtering offense.
Florida and Kentucky, in other words, are not just the only contenders for the SEC championship left standing after 15 rounds — they are also clearly the SEC’s two best teams.
And Florida destroyed Kentucky by 22 points in their only meeting to date far.
The Wildcats could get revenge for that win on Saturday in Rupp Arena, which would make winning the SEC very difficult for Florida and might, with a blowout, shunt the Gators to No. 2 in conference efficiency margin.
But that would also be what is expected of John Calipari’s Wildcats, who started five players ranked in the top 15 of the Recruiting Services Consensus Indices of 2015 and 2016. Florida has one such consensus top-15 player — Kasey Hill, now playing his senior season in Gainesville by virtue of lacking the NBA-ready talents many of those Kentucky starters have — and another consensus top-20 player in Devin Robinson, but is largely relying on players who were on the fringe of (Chris Chiozza ranked No. 49 in 2014) or outside (Allen was No. 64 in 2015, Egbunu No. 60 in 2013) the national top 50 at best.
And it’s possible to argue that Kentucky has slipped from where it was a year ago, despite have better talent on hand this season.
The Wildcats have a better overall efficiency margin than they did in 2015-16, thanks mostly to an improved defense, but have also largely played at a much higher pace than a Calipari-coached Kentucky team ever has before, leveraging their incredible talent over more possessions. That pace has made routs into blowouts, especially against spectacularly overmatched teams in non-conference play — Kentucky scored 101 or more points in three straight games at one juncture, winning all three by 30-plus points — but has also masked defensive deficiencies.
Kentucky is just 6-5 when its opponents have managed to score at least 1.00 points per possession, and does not have a single double-digit win in those six victories. (Florida is just 6-4 when opponents score a point per trip — but half of those six wins were by double digits, two of those losses are to Gonzaga and Duke, and the Gators are unbeaten when allowing between 1.00 and 1.10 points per possession, while Kentucky is 4-3 in such games, with one of those losses coming to Tennessee.) Essentially, when teams that can score with Kentucky actually do, the Wildcats are far more mortal than they may seem.
And though Kentucky’s overall efficiency margin is up from its 2015-16 mark — thanks largely, again, to non-conference beatdowns fueled by pace — its conference efficiency margin has ticked downward from 0.18 to 0.16, despite two fewer losses over its first 15 SEC contests than its immediate predecessor sustained.
This year’s Florida team, in fact, is very slightly more efficient in SEC play than last year’s Wildcats were — and that Kentucky team had two first-round picks, something Florida will assuredly not have.
This Kentucky team, meanwhile, has a projected two top-10 picks to last year’s one, and three first-rounders to that prior squad’s two. And given that one of those first-rounders last year was the utterly underwhelming Skal Labissiere — a first-round talent that Calipari gave fewer than 40 percent of available minutes, because that’s one luxury of being the trainer at Kentucky’s stable of thoroughbreds — it is not hard to argue that Kentucky has more talent on hand than it did.
Any evidence of stagnation or underachievement for Kentucky does Calipari no favors, certainly, and his history with the SEC Coach of the Year award also points to what it takes for him to win one. Calipari earned the laurel in 2010, 2012, and 2015 — years in which his Wildcats won the SEC outright — but lost to Texas A&M’s Billy Kennedy in 2016, as Kentucky and Texas A&M shared the title.
It’s very unlikely that Florida and Kentucky would tie for the title this year, but, assuredly, Coach of the Year would go to White in such a tie. After all, who but White and Calipari actually has any case at all for the honor?
Frank Martin seemed like a great choice as February dawned, but his Gamecocks are 3-4 in the month and 1-4 in their last five games. Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas are each better than they were a year ago, but Alabama and Georgia won’t make the NCAA Tournament and Arkansas is very likely to go 0-3 against Florida and Kentucky. Tennessee is much better than it was a year ago, but is still just 7-7 in conference play and 0-2 on the road in the state of Mississippi.
No one will be giving LSU’s Johnny Jones and Missouri’s Kim Anderson recognition — except, perhaps, the coach of a team who has to spin a mere 10-point win over a 20-loss team — for somehow not getting fired midway through 20-loss seasons, though those feats may be the true most impressive ones in the league this year.
In this year’s SEC, no teams have done more or better than Florida and Kentucky. And Florida is doing more with less, something Kentucky never even has to consider doing. And Florida did better than Kentucky when they met.
And so, barring a truly unforeseen swoon, Mike White will be the SEC Coach of the Year.