Donovan faces former assistant as UF visits Alabama


Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan on the sidelines against Richmond on Jan. 4.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer/File
Published: Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 9:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 11:44 p.m.

For Florida coach Billy Donovan, it's never easy to face a former assistant coach.

Facts

Thursday's game

Who: No. 6 Florida Gators (15-2, 4-0 SEC) at Alabama Crimson Tide (8-9, 2-2 SEC)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
TV: ESPN2
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM

“I don't think anybody likes it,” Donovan said. “I don't like it.”

But Donovan will once again face one of his closest friends in coaching when Florida plays at Alabama tonight in a nationally televised game. Donovan is 6-0 against Alabama coach Anthony Grant, his former assistant coach at Marshall and UF from 1994-2006. Grant and Alabama are in desperate need of a signature win to at least get into the conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid.

The No. 6 Gators (15-2, 4-0 SEC) are looking to extend their season-best win streak to 10 games. Florida is the only SEC team left unbeaten in conference play.

Donovan is wary of the challenge that Alabama (8-9, 2-2 SEC) can present.

“They've played the most difficult schedule of anybody in our league, based on computer rankings and what other teams have done,” Donovan said. “So I don't think their record, per se, is any indication of what kind of team they are when you talk about playing at UCLA, playing at Duke, playing Wichita State, playing Xavier, playing some of the teams they've played against, and it's been really challenging.”

The only problem? Alabama was unable to win any of those games.

“At the end of the day, you've got to win and unfortunately we didn't do that in our non-conference schedule to put ourselves in that position,” Grant said. “But I think if you look at strength of schedule, the teams we've played, I think as a team we're learning a lot about ourselves and hopefully as we move forward in the SEC we'll grow from it and get better from it.”

At Florida, Grant was instrumental in recruiting players (such as Udonis Haslem and Corey Brewer) that helped Donovan build a winning foundation at Florida. In his first head coaching job at Virginia Commonwealth, Grant had immediate success, leading VCU to the 2007 NCAA Tournament and a first-round upset of Duke.

But the building job for Grant has been tougher at Alabama. He's 95-61 in his fifth season at Alabama, with one NCAA Tournament appearance and two NIT appearances. Last offseason, Grant suffered a pair of key player defections. Guard Trevor Lacey, Alabama's second-leading scorer last season, transferred to North Carolina State. And forward Devonta Pollard, a McDonald's All-American recruit, withdrew from school following his freshman season after being arrested as part of a bizarre kidnapping ring that involved his mother and a six-year-old girl. Pollard is now enrolled at East Mississippi Junior College.

Alabama senior point guard Trevor Releford (18.3 ppg) is one of the best players in the SEC, but his supporting cast is thin.

“They've got a lot of different pieces right now, but certainly losing the one kid who transferred to N.C. State and then another kid who got in trouble there, those were two very, very good players, so sometimes it's hard to overcome those things,” Donovan said. “But I think Anthony, leading up to this year, really has done a terrific job.”

How much the coach-mentor relationship plays into Donovan's current streak against Grant is debatable. In essence, Donovan and Grant are contemporaries (Donovan was born in 1965, Grant in 1966). On the flip side, Donovan is 0-7 against Louisville coach Rick Pitino, his former college head coach at Providence. Pitino got Donovan into coaching by hiring him as a graduate assistant coach at Kentucky in 1990.

Overall, Donovan is 13-2 against his former assistant coaches.

“Anytime you compete against friends or somebody close to you, that's always difficult,” Donovan said. “You know, for me, as I've gotten older there are more and more guys. For a while it was Anthony, we'd have one year where we'd play against Coach Pitino's team, we'd play against John Pelphrey at Arkansas, played against Alabama, played against Donnie Jones.

“They are not great, comfortable teams to play against. But Anthony's team, they are going to go out and play hard. So is our team, and really, it's going to be the players that decide it.”

Donovan's six-game winning streak against Grant has included two wins in the SEC Tournament and two wins in games decided by fewer than five points last year. Last season, Alabama had second-half leads in both games against UF, but were unable to finish off the Gators.

Grant said that Alabama's trend of second-half meltdowns has carried over into this season.

“Honestly that's where we're struggling,” Grant said. “We have not stepped up in the second half. I think you can look at the numbers offensively and defensively, we struggled to close games out that we've had opportunities in whether they be at home or on the road. Our veterans have to step up and play like veterans when the game is on the line.”

Prather named to Wooden list

Florida senior forward Casey Prather was named to the Wooden Award midseason Top 25 list on Wednesday.

Prather, UF's leading scorer at 17.3 points per game, has scored in double figures in all 15 games he's appeared in this season. A 6-foot-6 forward from Jackson, Tenn., Prather missed two games recently with a bone bruise but returned to score a game-high 21 points in UF's 68-61 win Saturday at Auburn.

The Wooden Award is given annually to the best college basketball player in the country.

Stolt SEC legend

Former Gator forward Greg Stolt (1995-99) was selected as Florida's legend for the 2014 SEC Tournament.

Stolt shot an SEC-best 43.8 percent from 3-point range as a senior, helping lead the Gators to the Sweet 16 in Donovan's third season as coach at UF.

FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Michael Frazier II 6-4 So. 11.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg

G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Sr. 12.7 ppg, 3.6 apg

F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr 17.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg

F Will Yeguete 6-7 Sr. 5.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg

C Patric Young 6-9 Sr. 10.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg

ALABAMA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Retin Obasohan 6-1 RSo. 12.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg

G Trevor Releford 6-0 Sr. 18.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg

G Levi Randolph 6-5 Jr. 9.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg

F Shannon Hale 6-8 Fr.. 6.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg

C Carl Engstrom 7-1 Jr. 2.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg

Notes: Florida has won nine straight overall and has won 18 straight January games dating back to a Jan. 7, 2012 loss at Tennessee. …. Florida is 62-73 all-time against Alabama, but 19-5 against the Crimson Tide under Billy Donovan. … Florida senior forward Casey Prather's field goal percentage (.636) ranks first in the SEC and fourth in the nation. At 259 points this season, Prather needs just 17 points to surpass his career total in his first three seasons at UF (276 points). … Florida ranks first in the SEC in scoring defense at 59.7 points allowed per game. The Gators have held 12 of 17 opponents under 61 points this season. … Freshman point guard Kasey Hill is averaging 6.8 points and 3.5 assists off the bench. … Alabama returns three starters from a team that finished 23-13 and reached the quarterfinals of the NIT last season. … Basketball Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight will serve as the analyst for tonight's nationally televised game, paired with Rece Davis.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Releford vs. Wilbekin

Tonight's matchup will feature two of the more complete point guards in the Southeastern Conference. Florida senior Scottie Wilbekin will have his hands full defensively against Alabama senior point guard Trevor Releford, who ranks seventh in the SEC in scoring at 18.3 ppg. Wilbekin also has shown a knack for hitting big shots in big spots this season and his decision-making down the stretch has been sound.

2. Defending the 3-point line

Florida coach Billy Donovan said he felt the Gators could have done a better job defending the 3-point line in their last game against Auburn. The Tigers made 7 of their first 9 3-point attempts and had open looks they missed down the stretch. “We've fallen asleep on a couple of screening actions,” Donovan said. “The one thing that has been good is we haven't had that game where we've given up 10, 11, 12. The percentage has not been great, but I also think teams' average number of 3s that they're taking before they play us, that number is down.” Alabama is shooting just 33.4 percent from 3-point range, but Releford (39.6 percent from 3-point range) is capable of getting on a roll.

3. Taking care of the ball

Alabama forces 13.8 turnovers per game. The Tide will press, especially at home. Look for Alabama coach Anthony Grant to try to put pressure on Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II early and see how they respond.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top