Georgia’s Mike White: ‘We’ve got a chance to be more competitive’

Credit: Chip Towers

Credit: Chip Towers

MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — Georgia’s Mike White hustled into a little side conference room at the Hilton Sandestin Resort late Tuesday morning still wearing a backpack and lugging a suitcase. He was arriving for the SEC Spring Meetings and cutting it close before his first conference with the rest of the league’s men’s basketball coaches.

White showed up relaxed with a hint of sunburn on his face and neck. He had come to the northwest side of Florida from the state’s Atlantic coast after spending a few days with his family on a beach vacation.

The past two months have been a busy and productive for White and his staff. They put the finishing touches on a recruiting class that included nine new players and was judged to be 15th best in the nation and second among SEC programs. He also has been able to broker several non-conference games for next season, most notably a trip to Italy this summer to play three games in Rome between July 20-29.

The travel and games are nice, but the extra 10 days of practice the Bulldogs will get is the most important element.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to get ahead a little bit,” said White, who is entering his second season with the Bulldogs. “The NCAA allows you 10 additional practices than you normally get in preparation for that trip. … It’s an opportunity for guys to spend time with each other, really for everybody in our program to fast-track some relationships, especially in today’s day and age in the (transfer) portal and having nine new players. Excited about it. A great opportunity for us.”

Georgia will be forming a team out of four returnees, five incoming transfers and four incoming freshmen. The Bulldogs also return two walk-ons and added another in freshman Markel Jennings of Athens Academy.

White went 16-16 in his first season with the Bulldogs, which represented a 10-game improvement over the previous year. Georgia’s four returnees – Frank Anselem, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Justin Hill and Mathew Alexander-Moncrieffe – all played a substantial role in making that happen. But it’s because of the newcomers, all but one of whom were top-100 recruits coming out of high school, that there is a sudden wave of optimism lifting the program.

“Our staff did a really good job,” White said of signing seven players in a month this spring. “We’re excited about the level of talent and depth and size and length and versatility. We’ve got a chance. I feel like we’ll be more competitive this year in the SEC.”

Georgia at least will be bigger, and it needed to be. The Bulldogs added 7-foot, 280-pound center Russel Tchewa from South Florida via the transfer portal. Four other players, including 6-9, 215-pound forward Jaden DeLoach, are 6-7 or taller.

White shared that and other insights on his latest team with a few Georgia beat writers upon his arrival Tuesday. Here’s some of what he shared:

On the trip to Italy this summer …

“The trip’s going to be great and the sightseeing, spending time with our players. The 10 practices are important as anything that we’ll get out of it. It changes the whole approach starting June 3 when all of our players report. We’re practicing for something; we’re practicing for a mini-season. It’s something I’ve only done one other time as a head coach, at Louisiana Tech. I thought we really benefitted from it. We took a trip to the Bahamas and played a couple of games. Those 10 practices again, I thought we got a lot out of.”

On the revamped roster and talent brought in …

“Nine guys, seven of whom have won at a very high level. The other couple (of guys) we hope win at a very high level at the University of Georgia. A couple of the guys can play multiple positions; a couple of guys that are really good defensively; a couple of freshman guards, three that are very talented. I wish our backcourt was a little bit more experienced. That said, I think our backcourt is talented, and I think our freshmen are going to have a chance to impact immediately. … Excited about the class.”

How they were able to put together a top-15 recruiting class …

“We had a little bit more to sell. Just the fact that we laid a foundation and we went 16-16 as opposed to the previous year. … Not that we had an unbelievable year by any stretch, right. But the foundation was laid, we had more familiarity with the people we were recruiting. It was less of a leap of faith for both the high school kids and the portal kids.”

On recruiting amid Stegeman Coliseum being shut down for construction …

“I just put all my faith and trust into Josh (Brooks, athletic director) and Jere (Morehead, UGA president) and our administration that they’re going to do the best that they can do. We’ve got to do the best we can do and put the best product out on the floor. That’s where my focus is. It’s the same thing I tell my guys every day: ‘You can control what you can control.’ Right? We’ve been neck-deep in the portal for a couple of months. I just spent a few days at the beach recuperating with my family. So, it’s been a long haul, but that’s just not at the top of my thinking. I just trust that they’ll do the best that they can do. I have seen a couple of pics of some paint up on the ceiling and carpet color and things like that. It looks good.”

On if he brought any of the new recruits into the building …

“The timing escapes me right now. I know for a fact the last few were not able to get in the building. No. They could hear the construction as we walked around a little bit. They have started on the men’s and women’s basketball strength-and-conditioning room. They have started knocking down the walls, and I guess it’ll be one of the biggest in the country, so we’re excited about that. We’ll be in that thing hopefully in August.”

On how much NIL opportunities helped in recruiting …

“Moreso than last year. It did because we were able to sell that our players from last year’s team were able to benefit off their name, image and likeness. Again, it’s something that we can sell, just like having won some games and laid the foundation overall.”

On the sales pitch to recruits this offseason …

“There’s so much to sell with the University of Georgia and we’re going to sell all of it, from the town to the academic prowess. We’re top-10 public academic now, a top five or 10 athletic department, the way our administration is supporting us, a new era, to what football and every other sport is accomplishing, player development, playing style, the SEC, how competitive our league is now. We got eight in (the NCAA tournament last season) and could’ve easily had nine in. Some other teams were right there. So, we’ve got a lot of momentum. Dawg Nation wants a winner in men’s basketball, and these guys want to be part of something special.”

On RJ Sunahara transitioning from Division II, where he was the national player of the year ...

“I think it would be hard for him to be the Division I Player of the Year this year. But can he contribute to a winner? Yeah, absolutely. He is a winner. He’s tough, he’s versatile. I mean, he hasn’t lost in more than a year now, right? Obviously, he’s going to have to make some improvements, and there’s going to be a learning curve between that level and this level. The players he competed against look a little bit different now this year ahead for him in the SEC of course. But a really good defender. A guy that lets it come to him. He’s got everything. He plays within himself. He plays to win, you know? He’ll play as hard as anyone on our roster. I watched it closely on film. I’m really excited to coach him.”

On promising Brooks in their postseason meeting ‘to get this fixed’ ...

“We want to build a championship-level culture, and of course we didn’t have that Year 1. But I stand by it: We’re going to fix it. We’re going to have a championship-level culture. We’re going to be a little bit more consistent and take steps in that regard to where we know what we’re getting night in and night out, day in and day out. We did some good things in Year 1. I mean, we were sitting there at 16-10 and 3-1 in league play at one point, which was unexpected. We didn’t finish the way we want to finish, and we try to have a higher-level culture.”

On where team is better than last year ...

“First and foremost, our athleticism. I think we’ll be significantly more athletic and have more success in transition offense. We’ll be able to pressure the ball a little bit more, alter shots more. We didn’t protect the rim very well at all. I think we’ll be a better rebounding team. Not only our athleticism but our depth of athleticism. I think we’ve got a number of guys now that are SEC-level athletes. We’re going to figure out the best way to play offensively of course, and, again, we’re going to be relying upon freshmen. But they’ve got talent, and we’ll figure some of those things out. We’ve got to figure out the best way to utilize our guys to play to their strengths defensively, but I’m excited to get after it.”

On the approach with what you want the non-conference (schedule) to look like ...

“We want it to be a little bit tougher. I think we’re right there. I expect it to be a little bit tougher. I don’t know what’s been released and what hasn’t. We’ll have a few Power 5 opponents and some opportunities there for development and compute our numbers based on whether or not we take advantage of them. The first year of the ACC-SEC Challenge, right? We’ll be put on the road. Our schedule will be tougher, but that was by design.”

On Tchewa…

“He’s 7-1, 280, can move and he will be one of the best defensive frontcourt guys in our league from Day 1. He was one of the best bigs in the (American Athletic Conference) last year, an improving scorer throughout his career, but just a physical presence. We were dominated on the glass last year multiple times, of course. We’ve got to work at it, we’ve got to bring toughness, and we’ve got to see which guys rise to the top with that, but I anticipate him being part of that equation being a much better rebounding team.”

On how much of a priority it was to get Tchewa…

“It was a big deal for us. Since the day he got in the portal, he was a high-level target for us. We consistently recruited him, aggressively. Jalen DeLoach as well. He played (center), but we feel like he can play (power forward) at times as well. He’s coming off a 27-win season at (Virginia Commonwealth). He’s a guy who doesn’t bring as much girth, but in regard to activity, and length, he’s got great wheels for a big, can really change ends, and he’s a switchable guy, too, really, one through five. Moncrieffe comes back as a rebounder, so our frontcourt I think is much, much improved from a bunch of different ways once you look at it.”

On what Noah Thomasson brings to the program …

“A proven scorer, a guy that analytically is off the charts. I mean, 19.5 (points per game) with an incredible high usage rate, but with good percentages, positive assist-to-turnover ratio, (his last team’s) best defender. He’s a good player. He’s one of those guys who hasn’t experienced as much winning as some of the other guys that we signed, both at the high school and portal level. But he’s really anxious to do so, and it’s important to him. That was somewhat of a leap of faith for him because he had some programs involved that were coming off a better year than we had. Everyone that we signed understands we’re still in a rebuilding process, but he feels like he’ll make an impact immediately and help us.”