When Billy Donovan was announced as the Gators’ new coach twelve years ago, the Florida basketball program seemed more in need of an exorcist than a brash 29-year-old coach with 35 wins under his belt at Marshall. Just two years removed from the school’s first Final Four appearance, Lon Kruger left the program disillusioned, grumbling that it’s impossible to recruit the kind of blue chip players you need to win big to the University of Florida.
Donovan came with his New York-Big East-Kentucky pedigree and changed the basketball culture at Florida from one of why to one of why not? He’s 11 full seasons into this gig with nine straight 20-win seasons, nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances, three straight Southeastern Conference Tournament championships, three Final Four appearances and the last two NCAA championships under his belt.
Three games into the 2007-08 season, he’s heading for yet another milestone. With a win over Rutgers Saturday (7 p.m., Stephen C. O’Connell Center, FSN TV) in Florida’s final game of the Blue Ribbon Challenge, Donovan will earn career win 300.
Asked about getting his 300th win on Friday, Donovan downplayed the achievement.
“I think for a player and a coach there are always certain milestones in terms of numbers and things like that, but probably more than anything else, it’s a reflection that I had some pretty good teams and pretty good players that helped out that I’ve been very fortunate to coach,” said Donovan. “I don’t know necessarily what it means or anything else, it just has zeros at the end of it.”
Donovan is already the winningest coach in Florida history with a 264-103 record (299-123 overall). He got to the 100-win mark quicker than any coach in UF history, won his 200th game at Florida in 2005 and last year moved past Norm Sloan on the all-time wins list at Florida in 92 fewer games than it took Stormin’ Norman.
Before Donovan, the Gators had been to the NCAA Tournament only five times in school history and the Gators had never won the SEC Tournament. It took Donovan three years to get his first 20-win season and first NCAA bid and one more year to make it all the way to the NCAA championship game.
In typical Donovan fashion, he deflects personal praise for his remarkable run and makes sure plenty of others get their share of the glory.
“Unless you have an administration, assistant coaches and good players, it’s very difficult to win at this level and I think I’ve been fortunate to have all those things,” he said.
The Gators have won their last 13 games dating back to last March when they started a 10-0 end of the season run with a win over Kentucky in Lexington. The Gators went on to win the NCAA Championship in Atlanta.
Florida is 3-0 this season, bringing a school-record 22-game home court winning streak into the game with Rutgers, which is also 3-0. Florida has three Blue Ribbon Challenge wins over North Dakota State, Tennessee Tech and North Carolina Central. The Gators have won their last two games by a combined 82 points. Donovan figures Rutgers will provide a much more difficult challenge.
The Scarlet Knights will start a front line that is 6-11, 6-9 and 6-7, by far the tallest and most physical team the Gators have faced. Rutgers is an experienced team with only one freshman (Corey Chandler) cracking the starting lineup.
“We’re playing a Big East team that outside of Chandler for them is a more experienced team [than we’ve faced],” said Donovan Friday afternoon. “They’ve got a lot of size, they’ve got shot blocking, they’ve got shooting and they’ve got really quick guards.
“This is going to be a different test against a team that’s much more physical than we’ve seen, much more athletic than what we’ve seen. We’re going to find out a lot about ourselves tomorrow night.”
The big problem for the Gators will be stopping junior JR Inman, a 6-9, 220-pounder averaging 21 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Because of Rutgers’ size up front to go with the quick guards, Donovan says Florida won’t be able to play the Scarlet Knights straight up man to man.
“I think we’re going to have to mix it up defensively and play some different zones to slow some people down and confuse people and get people off balance,” he said.
The Gators will once again go with their three-guard lineup of junior Walter Hodge (6-0), freshman Jai Lucas (5-11) and freshman Nick Calathes (6-6) to go with a frontcourt of sophomores Marreese Speights (6-11) and Dan Werner (6-7).
Calathes leads the Gators, averaging 17.3 points per game. Speights averages 15 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game. Calathes leads the Gators with 6.3 assists per game.
GAME NOTES: The Gators are shooting 55.6 per cent from the field and a very respectable 46.9 percent (23-49) from the three-point line … Freshman Adam Allen (6-9, 66.7 percent) and Chandler Parsons (7-12, 58.3 percent) are Florida’s top three-point shooters … Parsons and Speights are both shooting 71.4 percent from the field while freshman Alex Tyus and Allen are both hitting 66.7 percent … Parsons, who is averaging 14.3 points per game coming off the bench, scored 22 points in Wednesday night’s win over North Carolina Central … Parsons’ grandfather played college basketball at Rutgers and was drafted by the New York Knicks … The Gators are averaging more than 20 assists per game … The Gators have a 2-1 record all-time against Rutgers. The Gators lost to Rutgers in 1972 when John Lotz was the Florida coach.