ARLINGTON, Texas — The old Big East may be dead, but two of its players-turned-coaches are on the precipice of a national championship in 2014.
One is a disciple of Rick Pitino, the other learned under Jim Calhoun, they each played and coached under their mentors. Billy Donovan starred at Providence then later manned the bench as an assistant to Pitino at Kentucky. Kevin Ollie both played for and coached with Calhoun at UConn before the coaching legend retired in 2012. Now they each will put their own teams on the floor against each other for the second time this season in the Final Four.
“I just know with Coach Pitino, we were exposed to a lot,” Donovan said. “We were forced to coach, we were forced to teach. We were forced to break down film, individual instruction. We were forced to make decisions, preparation, all sorts of different things. I didn’t feel like when I became a head coach that there was any aspect of coaching that I wasn’t forced or wasn’t thrust upon me that I had to deal with, and I’m always thankful for that.”
While they’re only seven years apart in age, one is an accomplished head coach and the other in his second year at the helm of one of college basketball’s blue-blood programs.
Billy the Kid is a no longer a kid, four of the five national media members Gator Country recently spoke with called him a Hall of Famer. A national championship in North Texas would place Donovan tied for third on the list for most titles all-time with only John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Mike Krzyzewski ahead of him on the list. It would also give him one more ring than his mentor Pitino. For Donovan, this weekend is about — among other things — an extension of legacy and a new type of accomplishment: reaching college basketball’s ultimate goal without the game’s best talent.
For Ollie, an NBA veteran and second-year head coach, it’s about inching out of Calhoun’s shadow and beginning to define his own path as a coach even if he’s doing it with some of Calhoun’s final recruiting classes. This Final Four is also more personal for UConn’s headman. It’s about family and coming home. He has a mother dealing with cancer and battling chemotherapy that he’s happy to have along for the ride.
“Yesterday she got cleared to fly and that was great news,” Ollie said. “I have her back in Connecticut with me, she’s been going through chemo with me at home. And my wife has done a beautiful job taking care of her and being there when I was able to continue to do my job. Just to see her get cleared, and she can come back home. She lives in Plano [Texas] here, and to come back home before her next surgery has just been a wonderful thing.”
Their teams are similarly structured with deep backcourts, helmed by talented senior leadership. For Florida, Scottie Wilbekin makes the whole thing go and for UConn, Shabazz Napier is more than just a handful for defenses to stop. Florida knows all too well about Napier’s exploits — the senior dropped 26 points on them in the early season non-conference matchup in Connecticut — Florida lost by one point when Napier’s buzzer-beater won the game for the Huskies. But do talented backcourts advancing deep into the tournament mean that this is a “guard’s game?”
“Well,” Donovan said. “I think that when you get to this point in time in the season, you have to have everything. Certainly Connecticut’s got a great back court, but they have also got a really, really terrific front court.”
Saturday they’ll throw the ball up in the air and the two Big East alumni will find out who is better the second time around. Ollie talks about his team going to “level-five,” a summation of a togetherness and championship mentality he hopes his team will play with. If it sounds familiar it’s because Donovan preaches a similar thing to his team. So much so that his ultimatum to guard Scottie Wilbekin during the offseason was either change, and become part of the team or transfer and start over somewhere else.
“The whole of our team is better than the sums of its parts,” Ollie said. “We know that. The only way that we can get here and perform at the best possible way is for everybody to be focused in on us. And that’s our ultimate goal each and every day is, us. How can we improve as a team. Hopefully we can do that Saturday night.”
Donovan and his Gators hope that they don’t.