He had just coached an unselfish, focused, workaholic group that helped him hang a pair of banners in Gainesville, Fla.
His expectations were high. Too high.
He brought in a highly touted recruiting class that included in-state stars Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons, undersized and athletic power forward Alex Tyus, Jai Lucas and Adam Allen.
They walked into the University of Florida with swagger, believing they’d follow in the footsteps of guys like Joakim Noah and Al Horford.
However, injuries derailed Allen’s career before it even began, Lucas left after a freshman season in which he logged 30 minutes per game, Calathes bolted after his sophomore year for a couple of million dollars in Greece, and Parsons and Tyus spent plenty of time in Donovan’s doghouse.
“I had plenty of conversations with Coach Donovan and Coach (Larry) Shyatt,” Parsons said of the first couple of years. “They told me I needed to change or start looking for other places.”
“(Donovan) really put me against the wall,” Parsons added. “At the time, I thought he wanted me out of here. But I wouldn’t let him get rid of me.”
Parsons has turned himself into the SEC Player of the Year.
Tyus was frustrated. He thought (and his dad told him) he arrived to Gainesville to play small forward, but there he was – a 6-foot-7 pogo stick of a center.
“It was tough,” he admitted. “I had dreams and aspirations of playing in the NBA, and I knew I wasn’t going to do it as a five-man.”
So he opted to transfer after his sophomore season, but then – after Donovan told him his days of playing center would be over with Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin becoming eligible – Tyus decided to do an about-face and return to Florida.
Tyus had the best night of his career in Thursday night’s victory over BYU with 19 points and 17 rebounds.
Macklin once was rated as the No. 1 prospect in the country. Dubbed “The Big Ticket,” he was a complete non-factor in his two seasons with the Hoyas.
“I didn’t watch basketball when I was younger,” Macklin admitted. “I committed there and had no idea what the Princeton offense was.”
But Macklin listened to his long-time summer coach, Boo Williams, and regretted his decision from the first day upon his arrival.
“The guards got the rebound and walked the ball up the court,” Macklin said with a laugh. “Right then, I knew it was gonna be a long year.”
Five years later, Macklin has gone from a 190-pounder who was compared to Kevin Garnett and considered by many as a one-and-done guy to a solid 245-pound post player who knows – and accepts – his role.
That’s the Gators’ starting frontcourt: Parsons, Tyus and Macklin.
Donovan’s backcourt has been criticized as well – especially for its inability to comprehend a quality shot from an ill-advised one.
Kenny Boynton was the subject of an intense recruiting battle between the Gators and Duke, a highly rated scoring guard who was a consensus top-10 recruit for much of his high school career.
While Boynton was highly recruited, Erving Walker was just the opposite. Few figured he could play at the highest level because he stopped growing early in high school and tapped out at 5-8 on a good day.
But Donovan was sold on Walker’s toughness and wound up taking him a year after pulling in Parsons and Tyus.
However, Donovan still desperately needed a backup point guard for Walker. A year ago, he tried going the overseas route and took Israeli floor leader Nimrod Tishman.
Tishman wasn’t the answer and is back in his native land, but the solution has come in the form of a local kid, Scottie Wilbekin, who still should be in high school at The Rock School down the road.
Wilbekin decided to graduate early and has given the Gators a solid ball-handler and arguably their top perimeter defender – along with Boynton.
Parsons and Tyus began their careers with a pair of NIT appearances before getting knocked out of the NCAA tournament last season in the first round.
“We took little baby steps,” Tyus said.
Now the Gators are just one victory away from getting this program back to an improbable Final Four.
Remember, this is a group that wasn’t even ranked a couple of months ago after losing early games to Central Florida and at home to Jacksonville and also falling against South Carolina in Gainesville.
“We went through some things,” Parsons said.
And now all that stands in the way of a Final Four appearance are the tournament’s darlings: the Butler Bulldogs.