NIT Notebook: Billy D vs. protege

Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 10:48 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 10:48 a.m.

NEW YORK Shortly before stepping to the podium during Monday's NIT semifinal press conference, Florida coach Billy Donovan and Massachusetts coach Travis Ford embraced.

For the second straight NIT game, Donovan will face a coach with which he has personal ties. Ford played at Kentucky when Donovan worked as a graduate assistant there.

Donovan helped Ford develop when Ford sat out a year after transferring from Missouri. The two often played full-court pickup games deep into the afternoon.

"Back then, I was in much better shape," Donovan said. "He's done a terrific job, first at Eastern Kentucky and now at UMass. My bond with him is probably a little bit different because we were both point guards in similar situations. I really took great interest in him."

Ford said that Donovan served as the good cop during his seasons at Kentucky, while UK head coach Rick Pitino was the bad cop.

"He was a great influence on my career and someone I could always turn to for a different perspective," Ford said.

Ford, 61-34 in three seasons at UMass, said Donovan's influence extends into his coaching.

"Just his work ethic," Ford said. "Usually as a coaching staff we divide scouting reports. One year at Kentucky, he did every scouting report that season. No one is going out-work him."

Ford's team could present potential problems when Florida and UMass play in tonight's semifinal. The Minutemen will start four players from the New York are tonight at Madison Square Garden, including Atlantic 10 Conference player of the year Gary Forbes (6-foot-7 senior forward) and A-10 most improved player Ricky Harris (6-2 sophomore guard).

Donovan and Ford coached against each other once before, when Ford was at Eastern Kentucky. Florida beat EKU 109-63 in the December 2003 matchup.

"I've done it before, but it may feel a little different because there's a little more at stake," Ford said.

To reach the NIT semifinals, Donovan faced one of his mentors, Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, last Wednesday. Florida won at Arizona State 70-57. Sendek was a graduate assistant at Providence when Donovan played there. Later, the two worked together as assistant and grad assistant on Pitino's UK staff.

In addition to Ford, Donovan will face close friend Tim Maloney, who is in his third season as UMass associate coach. Maloney worked under Donovan at Florida as a staff assistant from 1997-2002.

Costly trip

Florida's run of three straight NIT wins wasn't cheap. According to UF senior associate athletic director Greg McGarity, the University Athletic Association will likely lose close to $130,000 for UF's first trip to the NIT semifinals since 1992.

McGarity said it cost Florida about $30,000 to travel to Arizona State with a bare-bones total of 38, which included players, coaches and essential staff personnel.

The NCAA, which now runs the NIT, reimburses travel expenses for teams and coaching staffs that reach the semifinals at Madison Square Garden, but Florida chose to spend in the neighborhood of $100,000 for transportation and lodging to bring 43 cheerleaders and pep-band members.

"We felt like it was the right thing to do given the circumstances," McGarity said.

McGarity said that the UAA broke even and may have even made a slight profit from hosting the first two NIT Tournament games. The Gators drew 5,188 for the tournament opening win over San Diego State and the O'Connell Center, and another 7,595 for the home finale against Creighton.

More familiar faces

Ohio State senior guard Jamar Butler wasn't thrilled to talk about karma. But even Butler admitted it was kind if strange that Florida and Ohio State could play for another championship if both win and reach the NIT finals.

"It's weird but as a group, it's something we don't really talk about," Butler said. "We need to worry about Ole Miss first."

Florida beat Ohio State twice last season, including 84-75 in an NCAA championship game that featured five of the top nine picks in last June's NBA draft. Ohio State avenged the national title loss with a 62-49 last December at home.

"We're different teams now," Butler said.

Either way, Florida will face a rematch if its wins tonight's semifinal. The Buckeyes will face an Ole Miss team that pulled off an impressive win at Virginia Tech in the SEC quarterfinals.

"We're playing our best basketball of the season," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.

The Gators suffered their first SEC loss of the season at Ole Miss last January. Florida trailed by as many as 16 points in the second half before rallying late to lose 89-87.

"I would love for it to be an All-SEC final," Kennedy said. "But everyone is just trying to survive at this point."

Still intact

Donovan said Monday that all five of his 2008 recruits are still on track to enroll this June in the second UF summer session.

In a Washington Post article, Donovan was quoted by Washington Post college writer John Feinstein as saying, "We'll be a year older and we'll have four kids coming in next year who should all help."

"I had him in my office a couple of weeks ago," Donovan said. "He must have mis-wrote it. We have five coming in."

If all nine of Florida's scholarship players return, and if all five of the recruits who signed letters of intent enroll, Florida will wind up with 14 players, one over its scholarship limit of 13. Donovan said last fall he expected the scholarship situation to work itself out.

Speculation has centered on sophomore forward Jonathan Mitchell transferring this offseason, or sophomore center Marreese Speights declaring for the NBA draft, but both said during the SEC Tournament that they intended to return next season.


Mitchell and UMass junior point guard Chris Lowe were high-school teammates at Mount Vernon, N.Y. ... Lowe has started every game at UMass since the middle of his freshman year, while Mitchell has made just one career start in two years at Florida, "He's playing for a defending national champion at a big-time program with a coach that's demanding and makes you earn everything," Lowe said. "He's going to keep tough mentally. I tell him to take a look at (former Gator) Chris Richard. He was a sixth-man his whole career and he was taken in the NBA draft." ... Mitchell had left 17 tickets for family and friends and that both parents, Maryann Herring and Darryl Mitchell, will watch him play for the first time in person. ... Junior forward Dan Werner said he expected about 30-40 friends and family members to make the hour-long drive from Middletown, N.J. to Madison Sqauare Garden to watch him play.

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