UF coach Mike White’s Gators begin barnstorming tour in Jacksonville

UF basketball coach Mike White is hoping an extended road trip to start the season helps his team bond and improve. (Rob Foldy / Getty Images) GAINESVILLE — Mike White is a coach without a home.

For the next 39 days, White and his Florida Gators will play their first 11 games on the road while a $64.5 million renovation of the O’Connell Center is completed.

Beginning Friday night in Jacksonville against Florida Gulf Coast, the Gators will play in alien surroundings, shoot on unfamiliar rims and contend with inevitable fatigue. Along the way, Florida will face matchups with No. 1 Duke, Seton Hall, Florida State and possibly No. 14 Gonzaga.

The Gators finally return home Dec. 21 to face Arkansas-Little Rock in a pristine arena. White hopes his barnstorming squad will be in better condition during its home opener than when it left.

"Would we rather play in the O’Dome? Of course," White said. "But we’re excited about Dec. 21. But our schedule is brutal. It’s brutal.

"But a lot of opportunity at the same time."

Out on the road, White and his players believe the Gators can build team chemistry, become battle tested and boost the all-important computer rankings used in March by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

White’s program also hopes to expand its profile within the state. The Gators will play three games in Jacksonville, three in Orlando and other contests in Lakeland, Tampa, Tallahassee and Sunrise.

"It’s going to be a good challenge," point guard Chris Chiozza said. "But I think it’s going to help us throughout the season."

Florida enters its second season under White following a 21-15 finish and seeking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the program’s Final Four run three seasons ago.

The 2013-14 Gators were a unique blend of talent, experience and chemistry White looks back on with reverence and uses as a model.

"Talk about a team that maxed out," he said. "It was incredible."

The 2016-17 Gators received just 18 points in the Associated Press top 25 poll. But White’s team is experienced, deep and much improved in some key areas.UF returners have made a combined 295 starts, unique in today’s college basketball climate in which a player seeks professional opportunities even when he is not ready."That’s a big advantage," Chiozza said. "You see a lot of great teams. They normally have some experience with their team, especially with their starters."Like a season ago, White plans to have a flexible starting lineup. The 39-year-old said he did not even have one in mind Wednesday — 48 hours prior to the opener."I don’t want our guys so focused on starting," he said. "I try not to make it an issue. I’d like to reward guys based upon productivity more than anything, not only in games but practice."I like to keep my entire bench hungry."White hopes whoever is on the court is able to make shots his first UF team struggled to make.Florida was among the nation’s worst free-throw shooting teams (64.7 percent, 323rd of 346) […]