The first time I ever laid eyes on Billy Donovan, who at age 29 had become head coach of the Florida Gators, I thought he looked almost young enough to be one of the players. I had just been introduced to him by Steve Spurrier following the football media luncheon, back in the days when they needed to hold basketball press conferences on the heels of football in order to draw enough people to them.
Some of us thought Jeremy Foley had taken leave of sanity, hiring a coach whose only resume line was two seasons as a head coach at Marshall. It’s safe to say Florida’s AD made the right call, after 351 victories, two national championships and 13 straight seasons of 20 wins or more — most in SEC history.
Saturday night at the O-Dome, No. 351 was hard to come by, a 61-60 victory over feisty Tennessee, which held the lead almost all night. At halftime when Florida trailed by six, Donovan said it felt like 15 because his Gators had turned the ball over 10 times and the Vols had knocked down five out of 11 three-point attempts. Usually, Billy said, you are losing by at least double digits with those kind of stats.
If nothing else, however, this team is gritty and resilient, often appearing bent on self-destruction, but reaching down deep to pull out a rabbit out of the hat at precisely the right moment.
That’s what happened to the No. 17 rated Florida Gators Saturday night.
This being Florida’s seventh game in 20 days against SEC competition — three of them on the road — and following maybe their best performance of the year against the Gamecocks, there was a predictable letdown.
They played well in spurts, but never good enough to take command, partly because their best player, Chandler Parsons, was hopping around on a badly bruised leg. And partly because nobody could slow down Tennessee’s brilliant Scotty Hopson in the first half while he was on a 15-point tear.
Then there was the fact that Vernon Macklin was on the bench with three fouls. And Alex Tyus still remains a bit of a mystery, the way he comes in and out. At one point Florida had four straight turnovers and Tyus was involved in three of them.
Let’s face it: Coming off a 19-point shellacking of South Carolina in Columbia last week, which Donovan felt was artificially inflated, these Gators knew they were going to get Tennessee’s best shot. The Vols had to endured eight of their last nine games without the exiled Bruce Pearl in a very disappointing 15-10 season, but are hardly without talent.
If there was any good news for Donovan is that his Gators were allowed by Tennessee to keep hanging around, at one point closing the Vol lead to two on Eric Murphy’s three-pointer. And help began to arrive.
Freshman Scottie Wilbekin was nothing short of brilliant defensively on Hopson, pressing him hard, taking away his drives and helping hold the Tennessee shooting star to less than half his first half point prouction (7 vs. 15).
While sitting on the bench, Macklin said he could begin to see what Tennessee was doing and when he finally returned late in the second half, he found his way to the bucket with a nifty left-handed hook which put the Gators ahead 48-47.
Florida gave it back, though, with an Erving Walker turnover and subsequent Cameron Tatum bucket that put the Vols back up on top, 60-59, with 1:25 to play.
It had been prophesied that missing free throws would come back the haunt this Florida team. Even though they shoot 100 each in practice every day they are still only averaging a little over 65 per cent from the foul line. And sure enough, Tyus came to the foul line with just over 30 seconds left, his team trailing by a scant 60-59, shooting two, with a chance to put his team back on top. He fired two blanks, missing badly. Tennessee rebounded the second and Tatum had to be fouled on a breakaway.
The basketball gods gave Donovan one back, however, when Tatum clanked the front end of the one-and-one and the Gators got the rebound. With only about 14 seconds to play, Walker dribbled-drove to the bucket and laid in a left-handed, underhanded scoop shot that would clinch win No. 20 of the season and No. 351 for his coach.
“He saved my ass,” said Tyus, who thanked his diminutive 5-foot-8 teammate.
“Nah,” said Walker. “That’s not how we look at it. We all cover for each other. We care for each other. We love each other.”
While Donovan is proud of the accomplishment, he feels frustrated that he and his coaches need to do a better job of preparing his players mentally for what it’s like to play as the SEC’s top-ranked team.
“They probably think I’m from Mars sometimes when I talk to them,” said Donovan. But he says he loves coaching these players because, despite themselves and their flaws, and they have competitive spirit the likes of which he hasn’t seen in a while.
“This team is a fighting team, a resilient team, it’s a team that works really hard — but a team that needs to understand going into game, to game, to game.”
On Saturday night they fought and clawed their way back to beat a hungry Tennessee Vols team that was loving them some Gator meat. And they rewarded their coach with win No. 351.
It was not a night that Donovan wanted to celebrate, or even commemorate as a personal achievement. He said the reasons for his success were the great players and assistant coaches — what you’d expect from a classy guy like Billy — and he thanked Jeremy Foley, too.
I’d say Billy Donovan has passed the test and is on his way to another stellar season. Florida has won 15 of its last 18 games, leads the SEC, is 6-1 in the East and is bound to move up this weekend from its 17th ranking in coaches poll and 19th in AP.
With the Tennessee victory, Florida is one of five schools with 20 wins in each of the last 13 years (Kansas, Duke, Syracuse and Gonzaga being the others). And Billy is only SEC coach ever to have reached that plateau.
If this team ever catches on to the mental challenge issued by its coach and continues to mature at the rate it has during the 9-2 run against SEC competition since beating Ole Miss 77-71 on Jan. 8, no telling how far it might go this season.
With five games to go and eight days off until playing LSU on Saturday, there is still plenty of work to be done. But you can tell from the way Donovan is talking that both he and his players are ready to roll up their sleeves in anticipation of going dancing soon. There is no way these 2010-11 Gators intend to sit this one out