Donovan, Gators still have plenty to prove

When Billy Donovan was darting around college basketball courts in a Providence uniform during the mid-’80s, his Friars never earned better than a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament. They never won a Big East title, regular season or tournament. There was never a target on his team’s back, nor the subsequent pressure that came with it.

This, of course, came before Donovan’s head coach, Rick Pitino, went into the history books for taking three separate schools to the Final Four or won 600-plus games. 

This was back when Pitino and Donovan both were able to play the role of Cinderella.

More than two decades later, Donovan now understands the difference. His back-to-back NCAA title teams fell on both ends of the spectrum: the 2006 champs started the season unranked before earning a 3-seed, while the 2007 champs started and ended the season at No. 1. Though the rosters mirrored each other, those are two very separate journeys.

“When you have the target on your back, I’ve been there,” said Kentucky’s John Calipari, last season’s national title-winning coach. “That’s the hardest time to coach.”

By most accounts, the bulls-eye is firmly planted.

After rolling through the majority of the Southeastern Conference schedule, the Gators captured their sixth conference title — their fifth under Donovan. They are the No. 1 seed in the SEC tourney, and are on track to earn a 2- or 3-seed in the NCAAs depending on this week’s performance in Nashville. According to Donovan, though, nothing is guaranteed. It never is; it’s March.

“I think that the tournament is wide open. I don’t think it has anything to do with who’s won a regular season championship. It’s a new season. It’s a new opportunity,” said Donovan, who has compiled 410 wins and counting in Gainesville. “So I think there are a lot of teams out there that are very capable, and when we’re dealing with the one-and-done situation in a one-game tournament like this I think anything can happen.”

In efficiency terms, few teams, if any, can hold a candle to the Gators.

According to Ken Pomeroy, Florida ranks fifth nationally in offensive efficiency (118.8 points per 100 possessions) and second on the defensive end (82.6) — the most balanced team on paper in the country. But statistics only get the Gators so far. There have been speed bumps down the stretch that have raised the ultimate question at this time of the year: Are the Gators really the best team in the country?

The resume suggests otherwise.

With three losses in their past six games — two coming in second-half comebacks (Missouri, Kentucky) — Florida is riding a negative wave of momentum up to Nashville. Four losses in an underwhelming SEC schedule does not exactly inspire the same confidence as a Duke or Indiana right now. Not surprisingly, for a team that relies on balance and efficiency, Donovan said his team’s recent hiccups were do to a lack of efficiency, especially on offense.

“I can’t sit here and say we’ve gotten poor shots or taken poor shots,” Donovan said. “But the one common theme is that I think our turnovers have been way too high. Those last seven minutes against Kentucky we turned it over five times. We had a stretch against Missouri with about 11 minutes to go, we were up, and we had three or four possessions we turned it over and it inevitably led to a run.”

With its balanced, upperclassman-laden roster, though, Florida remains as primed as any program to make a deep run in either tournament, though Donovan would assuredly prefer such a stretch through the national variety.

The target sits squarely in place this week — though the SEC coaches were nearly unanimous in agreeing their conference tournament will be “wide open” — and it won’t altogether vanish after Selection Sunday. At least not for the statistically inclined. Last season’s champion, Calipari’s Wildcats, were also Pomeroy’s top-rated team entering the postseason.

The Gators will be projected, if not expected, to make a similar run.

Back when Donovan was himself averaging 20-plus points per game and being called “Billy Dunavan” by Pitino, he never really had the opportunity to play the big kid on the collegiate block. He’s had plenty of experience since then, though, and he will be using this weekend’s slate of games to help his team prep for the next. He’s not letting down his guard — “There’s something on the line all the time,” he said in this week’s teleconference — but he has a rather well-informed perspective on the entire operation.

“What it really comes down to, in my opinion, is I think some people make a lot more about brackets and seeding, who’s in, last four in, last four out, all that other stuff, but at the end of the day you’re always going to help yourself in seeding and getting into the NCAA tournament if you win games,” he said. “That’s really what it comes down to: getting your team to focus on what they can do and what they can control. They can’t control the brackets. They can’t control the selection committee. But what they can control is their performance.”