Donovan-Pelphrey, Round 3

Billy Donovan won his 300th game coaching at Florida on Wednesday in Auburn, Ala.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 12:13 a.m.

Shortly after his team upset Oklahoma and Texas, Arkansas coach John Pelphrey received text messages from a mentor and friend.

Florida coach Billy Donovan sent the digital congratulations to his former assistant coach just to let him know he was happy for him.

“John was an extremely valuable piece to helping us build as a program,” Donovan said.

Donovan and Pelphrey will coach against each other for the third time when Florida faces Arkansas this afternoon. For Pelphrey, it will be his first trip back to the O’Connell Center, where he spent six seasons (1997-02) as Donovan’s top assistant coach at UF.

Pelphrey did much of the legwork to help land Mike Miller, a McDonald’s All-American recruit from South Dakota who helped lead Florida to its first Final Four appearance under Donovan in 2000.

“There’s always emotion when you play against someone you have great feelings for,” Pelphrey said. “I have nothing but good memories. It was a special time in our lives.”

Donovan has said in the past he’s not a fan of scheduling games against friends or members of his coaching tree. He’s 0-4 against his mentor, Rick Pitino, but hasn’t scheduled Louisville since back-to-back meetings in 2003 and 2004.

Meetings between Donovan and Pelphrey, though, are now unavoidable because both coach in the same conference. Donovan and Pelphrey have split the previous two games. Donovan’s first Florida national title team beat Pelphrey’s South Alabama team 76-50 in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

HOOPS on Page 8C

Pelphrey won the rematch when Florida lost 80-61 last season at Arkansas.

Both coaches downplayed the significance of facing each other again.

“I don’t look it at it that way,” Donovan said. “I look at it about our team. I think John feels the same way. It’s about his team. We’re trying to get better and improve. How do we respond to the next challenge? I don’t think, at least I hope or feel, that it’s ever been about me, because it’s really not that way here. It’s about Florida. It’s about the guys that are playing here and where we can get to.”

Said Pelphrey: “When the ball goes up, it becomes another game. We’re looking to get on track in the SEC, to get back to playing good basketball.”

Arkansas already has gone through a roller-coaster start to its season. Picked to finish last in the SEC West because of the loss of seven seniors and leading-scorer Patrick Beverley, many expected the Razorbacks to struggle. But despite starting three freshman, Arkansas sprinted to a 12-1 start that included non-conference upsets against ranked Oklahoma and Texas.

But in conference play, Arkansas has looked more like the team that many envisioned before the season began. The Razorbacks struggled from the perimeter in a 70-56 loss at home last Saturday against Mississippi State. At Ole Miss, Arkansas couldn’t come back from a 34-24 halftime deficit and lost 74-65.

“Our margin for error is not great,” Pelphrey said. “We have to be completely tuned in to what we’re doing on the defensive end of the floor in order for us to have chance to be successful.”

Despite the 0-2 league start, Arkansas presents problems that concern Donovan. Florida has no one inside to match the size and skill of starting Arkansas center Michael Washington. The 6-foot-9, 239-pound Washington is the SEC’s leading rebounder (10.5 rpg) and ranks eighth in the league in scoring (17.1 ppg.)

“(Washington) is one guy that has to be mentioned for player of the year,” Donovan said. “I think he’s one of the best if not the best offensive rebounder in our league.”

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