Relishing Relationship-building – Florida Gators

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They’d barely met, but player-coach bonds don’t need much time, assuming both parties are willing participants. So there was Florida fifth-year senior point guard Tyree Appleby, the presumed floor leader for the 2021-22 Gators, sprinting, shooting and crossing over at the commands of new assistant coach Akeem Miskdeen

After a flurry of of drives and step-backs, Appleby took a moment to step back and take a breather; bent over with his hands on his knees. 

The teacher went at his new pupil like they were longtime acquaintances. 

“C’mon now,” snapped Miskdeen, whose knowledge of Appleby basically was confined to what he’d seen on video. “You’re a way better point guard than I ever was, but I was in way better shape than you are. Really good point guards can’t be out of shape.” 

Appleby took the criticism to heart and resumed his reps. His hands never met knees the rest of the workout. Or the ones in the days after. 

“I like being challenged. Being challenged makes you get better,” Appleby said later. “I appreciated that.” 

Florida’s other new assistant, Akeem Miskdeen, once a pretty decent Division II point guard, gets in a stance to guard recently arrived transfer Myreon Jones during a workout last week.  

It’s only June. The 2021-22 season opener is five months away. But this is a critical junction for Coach Mike White‘s basketball squad, which not only has undergone a significant roster makeover (four out-going transfers; four incoming transfers), but also a major transition in the coaches’ offices. Jordan Mincy and Darris Nichols, both of whom accompanied White to UF from Louisiana Tech in 2015, got Division I head-coaching jobs — Mincy to Jacksonville, Nichols to Radford — which left associate head coach Al Pinkins as the lone leftover assistant. 

Enter Miskdeen, by way of Florida Atlantic, and Erik Pastrana, formerly of Oklahoma State. As the new blood on the men’s side of the building their first order of business — as crucial as any transition component — was familiarizing themselves with the team. And vice versa. 

“It all starts with relationship-building,” said Pastrana, who three months ago was helping the Cowboys to a 21-9 record, including a No. 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament, while working with guard Cade Cunningham, a first-team All American and the presumed No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft next month. “We need to build strong relationships with our players. There has to be trust there, so right now I think the basketball stuff comes second. When you have really strong relationships, they’ll play harder, be a little more invested and deal with adversity better, especially knowing as assistant coaches we have their backs. The dynamic of having two new [coaches], that’s a big hurdle we have to have to clear.”

 

This isn’t the first such getting-to-know-you situation for either coach. Both earned their respective stripes climbing the coaching ladder on the way to Gainesville.  

Pastrana, 37, is a Cuban-American born and raised in South Florida. His father was close friends with Frank Martin, who coached powerhouse prep teams at Miami Senior High before entering the collegiate ranks. After graduating from Florida State with a degree in history, Pastrana got his first break into the coaching business when Martin brought him to Kansas State as a graduate assistant. It was there, Pastrana got his advanced degree in defense. 

“Being around Frank Martin, you don’t have a choice,” he said. 

After K-State, Pastrana took some turns as a coach at the junior college level, including a 30-4 run at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, guiding that program to the national tournament. From there, it was on to Stephen F. Austin, where Pastrana was part of a staff — under Brad Underwood, now at Illinois — that won 89 games and three Southland Conference titles (as well as a trio of NCAA tournament bids, with a first-round upset of No. 3-seed West Virginia) over three seasons. Pastrana opted to return to the JC ranks as a head coach, taking the post at Daytona (Fla.) College for one season, then headed to Florida Atlantic for a season, then to Oklahoma State for the ’19-20 campaign under Mike Boynton, who he worked alongside on Underwood’s staff at SFA. 

The Cowboys went 18-14 in that COVID-shortened first season, but bounced back in ’20-21 during a season that included wins over No. 6 Kansas, eventual Elite Eight participant Arkansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, a home-and-home sweep of their series with reigning national runner-up Texas Tech and an upset of No. 2 and eventual 2021 NCAA champion Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament. 

“I’m not sure it’s what I learned coaching at that level as much as finding out I belonged,” said Pastrana, who will oversee the UF perimeter players. “it gave me confidence, which is why I have so much confidence in guys like Akeem. There are so many coaches like that in mid-major places who just don’t get the opportunity.” 

One way a coach can ingratiate himself to his players: Do pushups with them when they lose a drill, a la Pastrana here.

As for Miskdeen, he took a little different track into coaching. A native and high school standout in Chicago, Miskdeen played at Division II basketball at Queens (N.C.), after which he bolted for a graduate assistant post at Hampton (Va.) University. When he got there, Miskdeen learn the available job actually was an unpaid director of basketball operations post. Whoops. 

Instead of looking elsewhere, Miskdeen took the job and scratched out enough money to make this work by leaving Hampton in the middle of the day for a part-time job selling sandwiches to workers on docks at the Newport News shipyards. A full-time job eventually came open and MIskdeen became part of a Hampton staff that reached a pair of NCAA tournaments before he bolted for an assistant’s job at Kent State. The Golden Flashes, with Miskdeen in the mix, also reached the NCAAs. 

After two seasons at Kent, Miskdeen went to FAU, where he worked with Pastrana for one year on the staff of Dusty May, who was White’s top lieutenant for four seasons at both Louisiana Tech and UF. 

Now 35, Miskdeen gets his first crack at high-major action. 

“I worked my butt off to try and put myself in a position like this,” said Miskdeen, who will coach the point guards. “Pressure? I don’t think anyone can put as much pressure on me as I put on myself. No coach, no AD, not even my mom. I want to be great and I want to help whatever I am a part of to be great, and that’s everything, from basketball to being a husband and a father and a mentor to these guys. I want to make sure I’m pushing every button and exhausting every possible ounce of energy I have to do that.” 

And that requires cultivating relationships. 

The process began immediately with Pastrana, hired May 24, and Miskdeen, hired May 29, reaching out to the players by either phone or Zoom calls to break the ice. The coaches then did deep dives into each player’s video files, watching hundreds of individual clips to get a baseline understanding of what their new guys did best and what needed focus. 

Their first official week on staff of work came during the middle of the summer “A” sessions, with only three players in school for NCAA-allotted individual workouts. No problem. Miskdeen took Appleby, Pastrana got sophomore Niels Lane, and Pinkins, the big men’s coach, got junior center Jason Jitoboh. Away they went.

“I really like these new guys,” Lane said. “You can tell they have a big focus on player development.”

 

Last week, UF’s four incoming transfers arrived, and the quartet, after passing their physicals, went right to work. To them, all three assistants (as well as White) were new. 

“Great people, great coaches who — like me — are just really happy to be here,” said fifth-year senior guard Phlandrous Fleming, who at Charleston Southern was a two-time first-team All-Big South Conference selection, as well as that league’s two-time defensive player of the year. “They all have seen the game from different levels and coached professional players, so I’m just trying to soak it in and learn as much as I can from them.”

Pastrana and Miskdeen are here to help. 

That they’ve bounced around to so many places and seen the game at so many levels, the duo believes they have something to give. Something to help the Gators get better. But it all starts with immersing themselves in the lives of their players. They want to know everything about them. 

“This isn’t the first time for us. I think we’re good at it. we’re comfortable with being the new guys trying to ingratiate ourselves,” Pastrana said. “If you try to force it too much, those things don’t work. Guys can sense that. They don’t want that.”

No, it has to be organic. Take, for example, the other day when Miskdeen and Jitoboh arrived at the complex at the same time. As they were about to enter the building, Jitoboh realized he’d left his phone at the dorm. 

“I’m gonna go back and get it, Coach,” he said. 

“I’ll go with you,” Miskdeen said. 

They walked there together. 

The preseason and regular season will be here soon enough. For now, it’s relationship season. 



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