Donovan among elite in NCAA Tournament


Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 at 6:02 p.m.

PHOENIX — The last time he was here, Billy Donovan was a shooting star. It had taken him but three years to put together a collection of athletes who were good enough to reach a Sweet 16. Billy the Kid was a comer.

The year was 1999 and Florida lost in the Sweet 16 to Gonzaga on a late tip in by Casey Calvary, but a year later would make it all the way to the national title game.

Donovan was leaning on every coach he had a relationship with for advice, employed a motivational speaker for ideas and at times looked like a kid at Christmas who found a bicycle, an iPad and a Lexus under the tree.

I remember after the Gators beat Oklahoma State to reach the 2000 Final Four, Billy at the podium catching the eye of his wife, Christine, in the back of the room. He raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Can you believe this?”

Over the next five seasons, the shooting star began to fall. The NCAA Tournament can be cruel with its matchups and its ill-timed injuries. Regular seasons are mere footnotes to how you dance.

“It's just the way it is,” Donovan said.

Most of America doesn't pay much attention to college basketball until after the Super Bowl. So 24 wins and an SEC title, but two-and-barbecue in the tournament in 2001? Get 'em next year coach.

You win 22, 25, 20, 24 over the next four years and don't get out of the first weekend, and you're trending downward.

Forget that some schools would kill for the five years Florida had between 2001-05. The perfect illustration of perception by the media of Billy Donovan prior to the 2006 season came in Nashville after Florida had won its second straight SEC Tournament title and Billy was only being asked about his failures in the NCAA Tournament.

During that stretch, Florida went 3-5 in the big tournament. The media hammered Donovan, painting him as a guy who caught lightning in a bottle but couldn't sustain success.

There's a great story about how The Beatles were being dismissed in the British media as being yesterday's news, a mere fad after their explosion onto the music scene. It had been awhile since they had done anything special.

Then they released “Sgt. Pepper's.”

OK?

Donovan released his “Sgt. Pepper's” in 2006. The Oh-Fours changed everything. And since that 3-5 NCAA record during the early 2000s, Donovan is 17-2.

“I think every coach, and I put myself there, you try to get better every year,” Donovan said. “There is room for improvement all the time. I have probably learned and grown as well as a coach.”

As he takes his 2012 team on this crazy journey, there is nothing that can surprise him. He's seen it all. He sent the “Pack Line defense” packing. He smashed Cinderella's glass slipper in Omaha, just the way he did in the 2006 Final Four with George Mason. He put a dimmer on Jimmer-mania last year.

He gets this tournament.

“The one thing that I have learned is that so many people make predictions, and it has an impact on young people,” Donovan said. “The game has to be played. You have to have your team in the right place mentally.

“They have to understand that the seeding, it's all nonsense. Seeding is based on what you did during the year. Other than that, it doesn't matter.”

As Florida heads into Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup with Marquette, Donovan likes the makeup of his team. He has learned over the years that the ability of players to focus on the task at hand is a major factor in how far those players will go in March.

Because it's easy to be distracted. These young men will be sleeping in a hotel for the 11th time in 14 nights tonight. They watch TV and this guy picks this team, this guy picks that. The number of interviews you do are ramped up.

“I also think your team's mentality in handling these moments and situations is important,” he said. “I've been fortunate, even with a Chandler (Parsons) and (Vernon) Macklin there has been growth there.

“You know that there are certain guys that want this kind of stage. There just are. As much as you can talk to guys about wanting the stage, sometimes it's a different kind of stage. It's a little different for them. That kind of mentality can go a long way. I think in this tournament, you've got to have players that play fearlessly on both ends of the floor. And they are not worried about making mistakes. They are competitive. They are driven to want to be great and want to be the best they can.

“That's not to say that the teams that got knocked out early were not that way, but when you get guys in those situations, in terms of advancing, understanding what goes on and as a coach the more you're in these situations the more you learn.”

Donovan has put himself among the elite in the NCAA Tournament. He is third among active coaches in winning percentage.

The star is certainly shining brightly.

Look, I'm not about to say that you don't have to have players. But one reason these players are at Florida is because of what Donovan has been able to do in the tournament.

“We know we have a great coach,” said junior guard Kenny Boynton. “We believe in coach and everything he tells us to do. We try our best to listen to what's being said. He's been here before as a player and as a coach. I think going forward we need to keep listening to him and doing what's asked of us.”

And you all know my mantra, that the NCAA Tournament is all about matchups. But coaching through the bad ones is as much a part of it as anything.

“I do think matchups, who you are playing against, styles — I do think those have an impact,” Donovan said. “There are certain teams where, it doesn't make a difference. Even the 2007 team that was ranked No. 1 all year and got a No. 1 seed, Purdue was a bad matchup for us, but we found a way to win.

“It's seeding, draw, who you're playing, bounce of the ball, there are so many things out of your control.”

In other words, it's not easy to win games in the Big Dance on the sport's biggest stage. It's not supposed to be. But Florida has a guy who has handled it.

And back here in Phoenix, where he got his first taste of the second weekend, Billy Donovan is older, wiser and more weathered.

The supernova has returned.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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