Tubby, Billy D know each other well
Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 12:28 a.m.
AUSTIN, Texas — They probably thought they had seen the last of each other six years ago. And yet, here they are facing off again with more on the line than in any of their previous 24 meetings.
It's one thing to be playing for an SEC Tournament championship (they did it twice) or in a big regular-season game (weren't they all?)
“We've had our battles,” said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, who is 14-10 all-time against Florida coach Billy Donovan.
The games have always mattered. But this time the game has huge implications, some that reach deeper than simply the end of the season for one of these teams.
“Oh yeah, I'm glad we are (facing Donovan in Austin),” Smith said. “I'm happy to be here facing him in this type of venue versus any other. If you're playing him here, your team has risen up to that level of good play because his teams are here on a regular basis.”
The two friends will face off tonight in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament. Their relationship began as assistants on Rick Pitino's Kentucky staff and has never wavered.
“Tubby and I have a very good relationship,” Donovan said. “I love his family.”
But Donovan dismissed the obvious angle of this game between 11th-seeded Minnesota and third-seeded Florida because, well, he always does. Donovan has never been a guy who buys into the coach vs. coach angle of a game.
To him, it's all about the players.
“Even though it's Tubby at the other end of the sideline, I'm not watching him,” Donovan said. “I'm watching the court and film. I'm not watching him.
“All I can say is Tubby is a terrific coach. He's done a great job with his team.”
There are some in the Land of 10,000 Lakes who don't feel that way. Smith has been under fire in his sixth season with the Golden Gophers. The win over UCLA on Friday night was a big one for Smith, as if Minnesota is going to get someone better.
But when you lose 11 of your last 16 games, and you've had only a modicum of success in a conference that is sticking out its chest, well, yeah, not everyone is going to be happy.
The funny thing is that Donovan's success is one of the reasons he's going up against his friend tonight.
Smith left Kentucky after 10 seasons. The best way to describe his departure is that it was a divorce, and Kentucky got custody of the kids. Smith had grown tired of the toughest basketball job in America, and Kentucky fans were tired of not being the best team in the country every year.
As the grumbling got louder, Donovan was on a run with his two national title teams. He beat Smith six straight times. Kentucky fans just knew they had the wrong former Pitino assistant.
Before he might be fired, Smith pulled the surprising move of leaving for Minnesota, saying that it was nice to “be wanted” again. Still, basketball-wise that's like leaving a cabana in Cancun to go ice fishing.
Kentucky went after Donovan, but he wanted no part of the circus. Instead, he rebuilt the Florida program after a couple of blips that ended up in the NIT and has won seven NCAA games the last three seasons.
Next up, the guy he helped drive out of Lexington. That may be harsh, and it's possible that Smith would have left even if he had been more successful.
Maybe it's amazing that he lasted there as long as he did.
None of that is relevant to tonight's game except that in this tournament, teams usually go up against teams they are not familiar with in the early rounds. Billy knows Tubby, and Tubby knows Billy.
“Maybe philosophically,” Donovan said. “I think the core value of who Tubby is and what he represents and what he is about has probably stayed the same.”
Tubby vs. Billy. Seeing them on the same sideline will conjure up a lot of memories of past battles. But Billy is right about one thing — it comes down to how well both teams play.
If the Gophers play like they did against UCLA, they might build Smith the practice facility he desires and give him a raise.
Heck, one day he might be making Billy Donovan money.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
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