SMITH COLUMN: The state of Georgia basketball

Published 9:30 am Thursday, February 16, 2023

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With basketball season moving deep into January, there is good news for UGA partisans in that the Dawgs seem to have found a fruitful fit with the new coach. Mike White comes from a family of coaches and athletic administrators and seems to have a very important ingredient in his makeup — savvy.

There’s more. and all of his professional plusses fall under the heading of fundamentals first. Sometimes coaching styles can be simplified. They can be elementary. In basketball, if you play defense and make three throws, those influences alone will likely take you to enviable status.

With defense you have to “want to play defense.” I remember a conversation with the legendary Walt Frazer who had this to say about defense. “When you look at the stat sheet there is no reference to defense. It is about the points that were scored, which is why it must be instituted by the coach.” No coach appreciates this dictum more than Coach White.,” 

“Offense can be hot or cold,” Frazier said, “but defense is something that can always be a constant. You can always apply pressure, you can always force teams into turnovers and when your offense is not clicking, your defense can keep you in a lot of games.”

The great Knicks point guard, a Hall of Famer who led his team to two championships, also said that to be good at defense, you must “want to do it,” adding, “I got psyched when I went to practice. 

The fundamentals are so important but there is no secret to playing defense. You must work hard and bust your butt. Get those sneakers burning rubber. 

Your back is going to ache. You are going to be tired. I used to rest on defense because I had such a reputation for stealing the ball, guys didn’t want to be embarrassed. 

When I got close to them, they would often pass the ball, they had so much respect for me on defense.”

Georgia has had so much regrouping in basketball, the most passionate of Dawg fans would take a wait and see stance with the latest coach, which is fair, but we can already tell that the White way is one that will bring about positive results.

Traditionally, it has been two steps forward and three backwards with UGA basketball. So much promise and too little results, but White is imbued with intellect and a floor sense that should bring about enthusiasm that will fill Stegman Coliseum in winter.

 One of White’s most loyal advocates is former Bulldog basketball assistant, Mark Slonaker, who is as excited as I have seen him in years. Slon sees encouraging commitment with White in charge of UGA men’s basketball.

“Mike coaches all phases of the game,” Slonaker says. “He is a proven winner. He will require his players to play defense. He will underscore teamwork, and he will limit a kid’s playing time if he sloughs off on defense.”

Growing up in New Orleans, White was a relentless competitor at Ole Miss as a point guard, leading his team to two SEC West Division titles, three consecutive NCAA men’s tournaments and a brief stint with the New Mexico Slam. The man knows about competition at the highest level.

As a coach, he paid his dues at Jacksonville State and Ole Miss as an assistant before becoming a head coach, first at Louisiana Tech and then Florida. 

With the Gators, his teams became an annual participant in the NCAA tournament. He brings elevated experience to his job as the Bulldogs head coach.

His brother, Danny, is the athletic director at Tennessee; brother Brian is the AD at Florida Atlantic and sister Mariah Chappell, is the assistant AD at SMU. 

His father, Kevin, had a distinguished 30-year career in administration, highlighted by stops as athletic director at Notre Dame and Duke. The Bulldog basketball boss has an impressive pedigree.

FLASHBACK FROM THE PAST: As we go, there is a lighthearted and unforgettable recall of the days of Jim Whatley who coached football and baseball at Georgia and was also Bulldog basketball coach in 1950-51. A highlight for him was beating Kentucky in old Woodruff Hall. Rupp vowed he would never play in Woodruff Hall again. But he did.

Whatley stood 6-6. In a hotly contested game one night, he walked out on the court and began berating an official who stood about 5-7. After a couple minutes the official pointed his finger up at Whatley and told him that it was going to cost him a technical for every step it took him to get back to the bench.

Nonplussed, Big Jim, as he was known, dropped to his knees, and crawled off the court.