EAST LANSING, Mich.–Tom Izzo remembers his first season as Michigan State’s head coach. It was a trying 16-16 (9-9 Big Ten) initial go-round with the Spartans, one that came immediately after the legendary Jud Heathcote called it a career.
It was also one that helped set the tone for the future, as Izzo continuously schedules a flurry of non-conference heavies in order to prepare his team for March Madness.
“Louisville, North Carolina, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, Arkansas (was) a top-25 team,” Izzo said while recalling the challenging November and December of 1995. “Yeah, there was… Santa Clara with Steve Nash.”
The Spartans lost to Louisville, North Carolina and Oklahoma State. However, they topped Kansas State and they got past Santa Clara, which was then led by a future NBA superstar who evolved into one of the finest point guards of his time.
“But we spanked Chaminade by two–don’t forget that one, boy…” joked Izzo, who was 4-4 by mid-December 1995.
They’re different guys, Izzo and Florida coach Mike White, with different backgrounds and circumstances. There is no head-to-head comparison.
Izzo’s a 21-year veteran who spent more than a decade as an assistant, preparing to take over for his mentor. White’s only 38, and he had zero experience with the Gators prior to taking over for coach Billy Donovan, the Godfather of Florida hoops.
But in all likelihood, and just like Izzo had done 21 years ago, White is learning a lot–and sometimes the hard way–during his first season as the head coach of a major collegiate program. That’s not to discount his former team, but Florida isn’t an ordinary Division I program–it’s one that had won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, and it’s one that has only missed the national tournament twice since 1999.
There’s quite a jump from C-USA to the Power 5 ranks.
There are expectations for White in Gainesville. Big, alligator-sized expectations–especially given his past. While at Louisiana Tech from 2007 to 2011, White won a WAC and back-to-back C-USA regular-season titles. In 2013, he was the NABC Region 6 Coach of the Year–two years later, in 2015, he was named District 11 COTY and took home C-USA COTY honors.
All of that on top of four years of assistant/associate duties at Jacksonville State. Not bad for a guy who was a teenager when Izzo took over Spartans basketball.
White’s already had a pair of encounters with top-25-ranked teams, so he’s battle-tested to an extent. About as battle-tested as can be at this point of the year, really. On Tuesday night, the Gators lost 66-55 to No. 17-ranked Miami. Three weeks ago, the Gators lost 85-70 to No. 21-ranked Purdue.
On Saturday, they’ll have another learning session, as White trots his 6-2 Gators into the Breslin Center to play the No. 1-ranked and 10-0 Spartans.
Call it earning stripes, or call it going through a buzz-saw. Either way, it’s not easy.
“He is… but I’ve been through that buzz-saw my first year in coaching, too,” Izzo said. “The difference is that he’s got a pretty good team. The big kid they got was with (former MSU assistant) Stan Heath, and we tried to get him, you know, when Stan left South Florida–the kid’s a good player.”
John Egbunu is “the kid” to which Izzo refers. And yes, once upon a time, Izzo was trying to lure the 6’11,” 255-pounder to East Lansing. Through eight games, Egbunu, a redshirt sophomore, is averaging 12.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per contest.
He’s also blocking more than one shot per game.
The Gators have more, though. Dorian Finney-Smith, a senior, averages 14 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. The 6’8,” 228-pound forward earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2014-15 and is billed as one of the league’s premier scorers.
Finney-Smith should be a load for the Spartans to handle Saturday. He’s already eclipsed the 20-point mark twice this year and he dropped 17 on Purdue, which is tremendously talented and well-coached.
Izzo has a lot of reasons to smile right now. His team is unbeaten and on the hunt for a national title.
But then again, White has a few things of which to be proud, too.
“I mean, he’s got a good basketball team that’s played very well,” Izzo said. “I mean, I like his team. He did a good job down at Louisiana Tech. He’ll be a good coach (at Florida), I have no questions about that.”