MEMPHIS — If you are of a certain age and have a sense of college basketball history, you most likely think of the 1987 Final Four as the great connector between Gators coach Billy Donovan and UCLA coach Steve Alford.
Donovan and Alford, a pair of sweet-shooting guards in their day, didn’t face off 27 years ago in New Orleans. But both were there and both played against Syracuse, a team that in the Sweet 16 that year knocked the first UF team to make the Big Dance from the tournament.
Donovan’s Providence team lost to Syracuse in the national semifinals. Alford’s Indiana Hoosiers beat the Orangemen on Keith Smart’s game-winning shot with five seconds left, one of the dramatic shots in Final Four history.
Indiana’s win delivered former Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight his third national championship. Knight remains one of only five coaches to win three titles, joined by John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Calhoun.
Donovan is trying to become the sixth member of that exclusive club and for that to happen, the No. 1-ranked Gators will need to knock off Alford’s UCLA team on Thursday night here at the FedExForum.
Nearly 30 years after Donovan and Alford became loosely intertwined on the college game’s biggest stage, they finally meet in the postseason.
"He had an unbelievable year [in 1987]," Donovan said Wednesday. "He was just a tremendous shooter, great free-throw shooter, certainly a catalyst to that team, and a major, major part of why they won the national championship his senior year."
In his first season at UCLA, Alford won a title as a player but continues to chase his first as a coach. He started his coaching career in 1991 at Division III Manchester College, moved to Missouri State and followed that with extended stops at Iowa and New Mexico.
Alford’s appreciation of Donovan’s career was obvious Wednesday when he was asked about the similarities between their days as players and careers as coaches. Besides being two of the best 3-point shooters in the country the first year the 3-point shot was instituted during their senior seasons, both played in the NBA briefly prior to becoming coaches.
"We were in the same era as players," Alford said. "I obviously remember him. He’s had a terrific career at Florida. I’ve had different stops along the way. But just a fierce competitor, very skilled, talented guard, high basketball IQ as a player, and [he] kind of emulates that now as a coach."
Alford was named to the All-tournament Team at the 1987 Final Four for averaging 28 points and hitting nine 3-pointers in wins over UNLV and Syracuse. Donovan, who averaged more than 20 points a game, was held to eight on 3-of-12 shooting in the loss to a Syracuse team led by standouts Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly and Sherman Douglas.
While both were drafted a couple of months after the ’87 Final Four, they found their niche as coaches within a few years of their college careers ending.
Their first head-to-head meeting Thursday offers an intriguing contrast in styles. The Gators rank third in the country in defense, surrendering just 57.5 points a game. Meanwhile, the Bruins average 81.5 points a game and feature a pair of talented scorers in Jordan Adams (17.4 points a game) and Kyle Anderson (14.7).
"Steve is a really, really good offensive mind," Donovan said. "I think he does a lot of really good, unique things with his team. I think he puts his guys in situations to be successful. He’s probably taken some things from Indiana and playing for Bobby Knight. He’s probably taken some things on his own based on his team."
The similarities between Donovan and Alford extend all the way to their current rosters. Both coaches have sons on their teams.
Billy Donovan is a reserve guard for the Gators and Bryce and Kory Alford play for their father’s first UCLA team.
Of the three players, Bryce Alford is the most productive. The freshman guard averages 8.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists to go along with a 39.2-percent touch (47 of 120) from 3-point range.
"It’s crazy. We have two sets of brothers on our team and then a father-son combo," Bryce Alford said. "They have the same. It just shows it’s just a family game. We treat our whole locker room like it’s a family and I’m sure they do the same."
Bryce Alford met Donovan last summer when he tried out for the Under-19 U.S. National Team that Donovan led to gold at the World Championships. Alford didn’t make the team, but he spent time around Donovan and Little Billy, a manager for the team.
"I actually rebounded for him a couple of times," the younger Donovan said Wednesday. "I knew he was a really good shooter coming in and he showed that."
As his father sat at a dais taking questions from reporters Wednesday afternoon, Little Billy stretched out inside Florida’s locker room as media members swarmed some of his teammates.
He watched Florida’s Sweet 16 win over Florida Gulf Coast University a year ago from back in Gainesville, a transfer sitting out the year and not permitted to travel with the team for the NCAA tournament.
"I was going nuts," he said.
He has a totally different perspective this time around.
"The outside eye looking in, it may seem like a glorious job," he said of his dad’s profession. "You’re getting paid a lot of money, you win a lot of games, send a lot of guys to the NBA, but in reality it’s a grind. I think my dad’s ability to handle the process and repeat it over and over again has put him where he is today."
With a win Thursday over an old acquaintance, the elder Donovan can take one step closer to matching the three national titles won by Knight, the final one with the help of Alford.