Donovan's tree branching out

UF coach Billy Donovan, right, will coach against his former assistant John Pelphrey's Arkansas team today.

Sun file photo
Published: Friday, February 1, 2008 at 9:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2008 at 9:46 p.m.

It didn't seem long ago. Cooped up at a Residence Inn, working 16 hour days, new Florida coach Billy Donovan and his staff of assistants John Pelphrey, Anthony Grant and Donnie Jones began the task of rebuilding the Gator basketball program.


Today's game

No. 20 Florida (18-3, 5-1 SEC) at Arkansas (15-5, 4-2 SEC)

Tipoff: 3 p.m.

Site: Bud Walton Arena

TV: Fox

Five things to watch
1. Boxing out Beverley
Arkansas sophomore guard Patrick Beverley has an uncanny knack for the ball off the boards that belies his 6-foot-1 frame. Beverley leads Arkansas in rebounding at 6.6 per game and in conference games is grabbing an eye-popping 10.5 rebounds per game. "We just have to box out, be ready," Florida freshman guard Nick Calathes said. "They are a huge team, probably the biggest team in the SEC."

2. Attacking the basket
Arkansas is third in the SEC in blocked shots at 5.5 per game. The Razorbacks have a deep, experienced group of frontcourt players led by senior 7-foot center Steven Hill. Still, Florida coach Billy Donovan doesn't want his team to settle for too many perimeter shots if some shots get blocked inside early. Florida launched 32 3-point attempts in its lone SEC loss to Mississippi. "Our guys are going to have to try to take the ball to the rim," Donovan said.

3. Bench play
The Razorbacks feature a deep and experienced bench that will be bolstered by the return of senior forward Charles Thomas from a one-game suspension. Senior Darian Townes is scoring 10.7 points per game off the bench for Arkansas. Florida may need big games from Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus or Jonathan Mitchell to match the production Arkansas will get from its reserves.

4. Well rested or too rested
Florida is on a six-day break from its last game at home against Vanderbilt. The time has allowed some players to heal from various bumps and bruises and has given Florida some extra practices to prepare for Arkansas. But the extra time could backfire if Florida doesn't come out sharp early. Vanderbilt had an eight-day break before facing Florida last Sunday and wasn't sharp, falling behind 34-6 early after missing several inside baskets in a row.

5. The road ahead
Bud Walton Arena is one of the toughest road environments in the SEC because the Arkansas fans stay loud throughout the game. The game will feature the emotion of Arkansas coach John Pelphrey facing his mentor, Donovan, for just the second time and first time in an SEC game. Donovan, meanwhile, will need to keep Florida focused following its recent national ranking and impending showdown Tuesday at SEC East rival Tennessee.

From those hardscrabble days in the spring of 1996 forged a bond that has yielded prosperity nearly 12 years later.

When Florida plays at Arkansas this afternoon at Bud Walton Arena, it will mark the second time Donovan has coached against Pelphrey, the first of his three original assistants who left Florida for a head coaching job.

Donovan's coaching tree has sprouted more branches since. Grant is now in his second season at Virginia Commonwealth, where he guided the Rams to an NCAA Tournament appearance and first-round upset of Duke in his first year. Jones left Florida for Marshall last spring and has the Thundering Herd off to an 11-6 start and 3-3 start in Conference USA.

"It makes me feel like I'm getting older," Donovan acknowledged. "You go out recruiting in the summer and you now not only see your former assistants, but you see guys like Brett Nelson, who were just playing for you a couple of years ago, and now they are assistants at other schools.

"I'm happy for all of those guys because I know the work they put in and the sacrifices they made. I think more than anything else I'm excited our program has had enough success that people look at these guys that they could potentially be good coaches, that they've gotten the opportunity to move on."

Pelphrey left Florida in 2002 to take his first head coaching job at South Alabama. It wasn't an ideal situation. South Alabama was hampered with scholarship reductions because of NCAA violations from the previous regime. But after leading South Alabama to NCAA and NIT Tournament appearances in his final two seasons, Pelphrey landed the job at tradition-rich Arkansas last spring after Dana Altman's abrupt resignation.

At Arkansas, Pelphrey has endured a first season of peaks and valleys. Arkansas is second in the SEC West with a 15-5 overall record. Pelphrey inherited a team with seven seniors that was picked to win the division, but there have been some growing pains with players adjusting to a more up-tempo, pressing style.

Arkansas turned the ball over 22 times in an early-season loss to Providence, prompting Pelphrey to bench senior starting point guard Gary Ervin in favor of sophomore Stefan Welsh. The Razorbacks regrouped from a surprising first home loss of the season against South Carolina by beating west-leading Mississippi State at home by 20 points.

"I think any time there is a new coach, you have to expect a certain amount of transition," Donovan said. "You can really see on film that they are team that's getting better and better, and I think that's a reflection of the job that John has done as a coach."

Pelphrey is 0-1 lifetime against Donovan, with the loss coming when Florida beat South Alabama 76-50 in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

"Outside of my father, Billy has probably been the most influential male figure in my life," Pelphrey said.

Pelphrey recalled the early years on the Florida coaching staff, filled with long film sessions and even longer recruiting trips.

"Billy was someone who gave you a lot of rope," Pelphrey said. "He wanted you to think like a head coach. We were involved in all aspects of coaching, recruiting, game plans, scouting."

Donovan said the responsibility he gave to his assistants was something he passed down from his years as an assistant at Kentucky under his mentor, Rick Pitino. Donovan said, even at 28, he felt prepared for his first head coaching job at Marshall in 1994 because of his varied responsibilities as a Kentucky assistant.

"There was really not one thing that I had not been exposed to other than sitting in the first chair," Donovan said. "One of the things I try to do with my guys is give them a lot of freedom and a lot of trust on my end for them to grow and develop. I think that's my job and my responsibility not only to try to develop the players but the coaches as well. And I think the coaches here have helped me grow and develop as well.

"I think one of the things that can happen with assistants is they become yes men and they are afraid to voice their opinions and they are afraid maybe to disagree. I've been fortunate here maybe I've had guys that the relationship has been good enough that they've been able to talk to me and say, ‘Listen, I disagree with you, or, this is what we need to be thinking about.’ ”

Pelphrey joined Donovan on a golfing excursion last May, shortly after he was hired as Arkansas coach. Donovan said there wasn't much shop talk.

"I try to stay out of what they are doing," Donovan said. "If they ever call, initiate, I will listen and be as helpful as I can."

Jones said he has leaned on Donovan for some advice in his first year as a head coach at Marshall, such as dealing with administration and hiring a coaching staff. Jones said that Donovan sends him text messages, sometimes before games to provide support, sometimes after games to offer congratulations.

"I know Billy is always there," Jones said.

On the court, Jones said that the playing style at Marshall, "is about 80 percent Florida. Maybe there are some things that we run offensively that I put a little twist on, but obviously I've imported a lot from working with Billy."

Grant, meanwhile, has taken advantage of his recruiting contacts in Florida to help build VCU into a contender again this season in the Colonial Athletic Conference. Of his seven freshmen this season, six are from the state of Florida, including former P.K. Yonge standout guard Myk Brown and Lake Howell guard Joey Rodriguez, a high school teammate of Florida freshmen Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons.

Grant guided VCU to a program-record 28-7 season in his first year as coach and is off to 15-5 start this season. That's fueled speculation that Grant may end up coaching against Pelphrey and Donovan in the Southeastern Conference next season, either at South Carolina to replace the retiring Dave Odom or LSU if current coach John Brady doesn't survive another subpar season.

Jones said he carried with him to Marshall the lessons he learned from his 13 seasons as an assistant under Donovan.

"You can make a difference with your work ethic," Jones said. "First and foremost, Billy is a great worker.

"I remember the early years at Florida, struggling, trying to build it back up. It's very similar to what we're going through at Marshall right now. To finish .500, that would be quite an accomplishment for us."

Pelphrey acknowledged it will again feel strange to face Donovan today, considering the memories they shared at Florida.

"That staff, we were a family," Pelphrey said. "That's very hard to duplicate, that environment, the dynamics of it."

Donovan said he looks for the scores of Virginia Commonwealth, Arkansas and Marshall every chance he gets.

"You're happy for them and their families that they get a chance to move on and take another step in their career," Donovan said. "I'm proud because I think they've all done well. John has done well, Anthony has done well, Donnie is doing well this year, and I think that's also pleasing, because you always want to see your guys succeed."

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