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March 30, 2012

Random Thoughts: Be thankful for Donovan


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The pain and anger you cycled through after Florida's late-game meltdown against Louisville in the West regional final were totally understandable.

The Gators never should have lost to the Cardinals after leading by 11 with 8:05 left against a clearly inferior team. It was even a little embarrassing considering the Gators had done the exact same thing in the South regional final a year ago, blowing an 11-point second half lead to Butler in a heartbreaking defeat.

But here's something else you should have felt: a sense of incredible pride and gratitude that Billy Donovan has been Florida's coach for the past 16 seasons and will remain in Gainesville for the foreseeable future.

When the Final Four tips off tomorrow in New Orleans without the Gators, it will be impossible not to dwell on the disappointment. Look around at other recent college basketball powers, though, and you will realize how lucky you are that Donovan is still around.

Remember when Villanova coach Jay Wright passed Donovan in public perception after his Wildcats spanked the Gators in the second round of the 2005 NCAA tournament? Florida returned the favor by beating No. 1 seed Villanova in a regional final a year later on its way to its first of two consecutive national championships. This year, Villanova went 13-19 and finished tied for 13th in the Big East.

Remember when Ben Howland was restoring past glory to UCLA? Never mind Florida's two drubbings of the Bruins in the Final Fours of 2006 and '07. UCLA finished tied for fifth in the historically weak Pac-Ten this year, missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons (after going 14-18 in 2009-10) and prompting a Sports Illustrated story detailing the dysfunction around the program.

What about Pittsburgh's sustained excellence under Jamie Dixon? His Panthers possessed all the qualities Donovan's pre-Oh-Fours Gator teams supposedly lacked - toughness, physical play inside and premier rebounding.

Pittsburgh and Dixon are still looking for their first Final Four. This year, the Panthers kept Villanova company at the bottom of the Big East, finishing with the same 5-13 league record and settling for a birth in a third-tier postseason tournament.

Donovan's biggest failing was being on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble in 2008 and 2009 right after joining Duke's Mike Krzyzewski as the only active coach to win back-to-back NCAA championships and having to replace his entire starting five. His teams have finished .500 or better in the SEC for 14 consecutive seasons. His teams have won 20 or more games for 14 consecutive seasons. No one in college basketball has reached more NCAA championship games (three) or won more national titles over the last 14 years than Florida.

Donovan has done it without a single NCAA scandal (see: Connecticut, Syracuse, among others). He's done it while recruiting only one player who skipped college for the NBA (Kwame Brown) and one freshman (soon to be two) who stayed only a year before turning pro (Donnell Harvey), avoiding the now-common rent-a-title approach (see: Kentucky).

Given those attributes, it is crazy to kill him for getting to the brink of another Final Four with a No. 7 seed.

Granted, Florida underachieved during the regular season, suffering inexplicable losses to Rutgers and Georgia and getting swept by Tennessee. But Donovan had the Gators playing their best ball in the postseason, following an impressive SEC Tournament performance by crushing Virginia and Norfolk State and cruising past Marquette in the NCAA Tournament.

That's what it's all about in college basketball. Long gone are the days from 2001-05 when the Gators flamed out at the end of the year after catching fire in November and December.

Instead, freshman Brad Beal matured into an all-around star who had NBA scouts salivating. He averaged 16.5 points on 53 percent shooting, eight rebounds and nearly four assists in Florida's six postseason games.

Senior point guard Erving Walker took care of the ball, committing more than two turnovers once in tournament play.

Kenny Boynton persevered through a horrible 3-point shooting slump, handing out five assists against Marquette and six against Louisville.

Erik Murphy blocked five shots and had 18 rebounds in the final two games, providing much more than just outside shooting.

Donovan deserves credit for all of those positives. He does not deserve the blame for what happened in the final eight minutes against Louisville.

He did not miss two consecutive free throws, as 82-percent foul shooter Walker did while Florida clung to a 6-point lead with 6:23 left.

He did not short-arm an easy lay-up, as Beal did at the 4:42 mark after Louisville pulled within 1.

The Gators choked. It happens.

But Donovan put them in position to reach the Final Four. Again.

He should be canonized rather than criticized.


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