The last three years were special under the bright white dome at 250 Gale Lemerand Drive. Back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight were surpassed when the 2014 team made it to the Final Four on the backs of four seniors — players who had bought into Billy Donovan’s system and played as a single unit.
The success that Donovan’s team had over that three year stretch brought expectations, ones that were unrealistic given the current roster of players. Donovan is one of the most successful college basketball coaches in the country. He’s built a program on certain morals and standards, ones that he is not willing to discard for instant gratification.
“I’ve known Billy since I was 15 years old, he hasn’t changed,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said. He’s the same guy he was when he played for Coach Morris at St. Agnes, he’s the same guy that played for Rick [Pitino], he’s the same guy that was an assistant at Kentucky.”
Two New Yorkers, Donovan and Greenberg’s relationship spans more than 30 years. Greenberg had much adulation for Donovan as ESPN prepared to telecast their weekly College Gameday program from Gainesville in preparation for the Gators matchup with Kentucky.
Kentucky comes into the game a heavy favorite, still undefeated and trying to be the first team to finish a season undefeated since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Florida doesn’t appear to have the talent to hang in there with the powerhouse Wildcats but Donovan is determined to stay the course and adhere to his formula for building his program, even if it means Florida has to struggle along the way to get there.
“He’s not going to trade out the culture for a win,” said Greenberg.
Florida’s current record of 12-10 (5-4 SEC) isn’t going to get them into the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season. The only consistent thing Donovan’s club has been able to accomplish this season is being inconsistent. Whether it’s effort, shooting, converting at the foul line, on defense or rebounding the Gators have yet to showcase that they can play a full game, night in and night out and do what it takes to win.
“The players aren’t as good. You guys think it’s easy,” said Greenberg. “You don’t lose the Will Yeguettes, Patric Youngs and Scottie Wilbekins, those guys, and expect to look the same. You’ve got new players in new roles and guys that are works in progress. You’re replacing a four-year starter at point guard with a guy that doesn’t have a great feel for the game at the point.
“I mean, real simple. Kurtz is one of the better players; he was a manager, that’s the reality of the thing.”
Florida is taking their lumps this season. Michael Frazier benefitted from being the fifth man on the scouting report last year on his way to a record-setting season from beyond the arc. This year, with teams focusing on and game planning for him, Frazier’s numbers are far more pedestrian. Kasey Hill doesn’t appear to have a great feel for running a team from the point and McDonald’s All-American Chris Walker hasn’t lived up to the hype that he came to Gainesville with.
“I didn’t buy the hype,” said Greenberg. “That’s all the guys who didn’t watch him play, who created it.”
“If you took time to watch the guy play, you’d see what he could and couldn’t do. He’s pretty easy to evaluate. He’s a suspect and that’s who he was. He’s a kid who had chance. He’s a long kid who can run and jump but, you know what, there’s a lot of dudes that can run and jump.”
Sure, some of the blame can fall on Donovan’s shoulders. He’s the one that recruited these players to the roster and the shortcomings of the team can fall on him. But there comes a time when players need to take responsibility, realize what they are as individuals and what their coach needs them to become in order to play effective, team basketball. Donovan has yet to find a way to flip the light bulb on in his teams’ head and it may never happen this season.
“I think Billy is trying to build this program through, you wanna get a great player or two, but it’s through player development, it’s through developing a chemistry and a trust and getting guys to play for each other and the good of the group,” Greenberg said. “Some guys the light bulb hasn’t gone on yet. Some guys the light bulb will never go on.”
One thing is certain. The University of Florida has one of the best college basketball coaches in the country. He’s built the program from the ground up, won on the brightest stage and he’s not going to change his process for the instant gratification that a few more wins this season would bring. It’s what has made Donovan who he is.
“The reality is that the most important thing that Billy is trying to do with this team is that he has a certain culture a certain way he wants his team to look and he’s not going to sacrifice that to win one more game,” said Greenberg.
“That’s why the guy is great.”