Donovan still trying to get Gators back on track

BY foxsports • January 22, 2010

Billy Donovan is a thoroughly modern college basketball coach, and yes, that means that Donovan has a vibrant Twitter account.

Check @UFCoachBillyD. He’s tweeted a request to impatient University of Florida fans to appreciate (translation: stop booing) senior forward Dan Werner. There’s a post about not embracing moral victories as well as another about the new security gate outside the Gainesville housing development where the Donovan family lives.

But now that Donovan’s 13-5 team has slipped from the Top 25 and brings a 2-2 Southeastern Conference record into its game against South Carolina in Gainesville Saturday, you’re tempted to tap this Tweet to Donovan and his Gators:

“Folks are whispering about your club again, coach. Wondering if you’re going to make this tournament this time. Wellll … ARE YOU????”

That is The Question -- Will Florida make its return to the NCAA Tournament? -- that college basketball is again asking about Donovan’s team. Back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006-2007. Back-to-back National Invitation Tournament appearances in 2008-09.

There isn’t a huge sample size of programs that have followed that flight path. It does not easily compute.

Is this the team that roared into the top 10 in early December by beating Florida State and Michigan State on its way to 8-0? Or is this the team that lost a home game to South Alabama, needed a 75-foot Chandler Parsons’ prayer for an overtime win at North Carolina State and then avoided the program’s first 0-3 SEC start in 28 years by beating Louisiana State last Saturday?

“I like our team,” Donovan said. “There are some areas where we have gotten better and some where we need more work. There are times when we have played very, very well. I think we’re a team working with a small margin for error because we’re not a deep team.

“Do I think we’re one of those teams that’s going to be in the mix for the NCAA Tournament? Yes, I do. Does that mean we will be? Time will tell.”

The time was when Florida looked like the Next Great Thing in college basketball. Donovan and his band of gritty Gators joined Duke as the only programs to do the back-to-back title thing in more than three decades.

And Donovan won those two NCAA titles without a roster stocked with McDonald’s All-Americans. What made what Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey accomplished against UCLA in 2006 and Ohio State in 2007 so delightful is that it was so unexpected.

Donovan became the must-have coach in basketball, a guy who could find and truly develop talent, a guy who turned down Kentucky and then U-turned back to Florida after signing a deal with the Orlando Magic in 2007. The world understood the U-turn, even applauded him for doing the right thing. Donovan was bright, engaging and relentlessly at work to make Florida a program you always feared in March.

Not so fast. Four consecutive Top 25 recruiting classes, highlighted by Top 10 classes that he signed in 2007 and 2008, have not translated into another Top 25 team.

The Gators have labored repeatedly over the last 2 1/2 seasons, losing 28 of 90 games. As everybody expected, the four underclassmen who started on the back-to-back champs did not return for their senior seasons in 2008. That left a leadership void more daunting than the talent void -- and back-to-back NITs.

“The last couple of years, when you look at the RPI and winning enough games against other teams in the Top 50, we were probably a couple of wins away (from making the NCAA Tournament),” Donovan said. “I don’t think our guys have always understood what went into being great.”

Better recruiting doesn’t always translate into better performance -- or better karma. Two players from each of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 recruiting classes have exited the program, most notably Nick Calathes, who departed after two seasons last spring to sign a three-year, $3.3 million contract with the Panathinaikos Euroleague team in Athens, Greece.

Add in a herniated disk (center Kenny Kadji), a dislocated patella tendon (swingman Ray Shipman), multiple knee injuries (Adam Allen), a torn calf muscle (Parsons) and a roster reduced to eight scholarship players, and it’s no surprise that before the LSU game Donovan sent the Tweet defending Werner, who took an IV bag to play with flu symptoms in that game.

Florida fans have filled the 12,000-seat O’Connell Center only once for 10 home games -- and that was when John Wall and Kentucky were in town. Some have wondered if the grumbling was actually more about the Gators losing five of eight than Werner’s 37 percent shooting percentage.

The Gators’ RPI -- No. 75 before their 71-66 win at Arkansas Thursday night -- suggests this team has work to do to avoid another NIT.

“I totally understand that kind of stuff,” Donovan said, when asked how often he’s been asked what has happened to the Gators.

“We’re a solid team. Not a top 10 team, not a top 15 team. But we’re a good solid team.”

But an NCAA Tournament team? As Billy Donovan said, time will tell.

Check out Rick Bozich's blog.

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