Billy Donovan would never come right out and say it – there are certain things that he might think but will definitely keep to himself – but Saturday, with all the emotion and excitement of Senior Day and Florida vs. Kentucky, is all about his way vs. their way.
His way: In the pregame ceremonies Florida fans at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center will have one last chance to show their appreciation for Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. By today’s standards in college basketball, they are on the endangered species list. You can count on one hand the number of teams with a top 100 RPI that start four seniors. They’ve been in the Florida program four years. They’ve won three SEC championships. They’ve made it to the Elite Eight game three times. They’ve won 112 games with a chance to become the winningest senior class in Florida history. They are one win away from the first 18-0 run through the Southeastern Conference in league history. They might be the team best built and best prepared to make that 6-0 run in March that leads to the playing of “One Shining Moment” as the confetti falls from the ceiling.
Their way: John Calipari comes to the O-Dome with a roster filled top to bottom with names you’ll see on NBA rosters in the future. Eight of them are freshmen, two of them are sophomores. Most of them were McDonald’s All-Americans. They were supposed to be the greatest team ever assembled this year. Calipari said the Wildcats would be chasing perfection and making history. The only history Kentucky is going to make is going down as the most over-hyped team in the history of college basketball.
Now that isn’t to say that Kentucky (22-8, 12-5 SEC) can’t beat the #1-ranked Gators (28-2, 17-0 SEC) when they tip off at noon (CBS). The Wildcats would like nothing more than to ruin Senior Day, put an end to Florida’s 22-game winning streak and end that 31-game unbeaten streak at the O-Dome. Kentucky wants this game. Kentucky needs this game. Desperately.
But so does Florida.
And while Donovan won’t go ahead and say this is his way against their way, it’s fairly obvious that his way of doing things has created a team that should be embraced by every college basketball fan in the country as one that has done it the right way. These four seniors made up what was considered a good but not great recruiting class back in 2010. None of them started as freshmen and all four have had to earn their way into the starting lineup. Young started as a sophomore; Wilbekin as a junior; Yeguete and Prather got their chance to start this season.
All four have had to overcome adversity in their careers. All four of them have stuck together in good times and bad. All four will graduate from the University of Florida. All four will tell you that Billy Donovan has been everything they could have asked for in a coach – encourager, teacher, confidant, mentor, friend, surrogate father.
All four will tell you that the best thing they ever did was come to the University of Florida to play for Billy Donovan.
That is the Donovan way. It lacks the glitz and the glam of the world of one-year rent-a-players, but it works and will work for the duration.
The other way was embraced as the wave of the future when Kentucky won the NCAA championship a couple of years ago with three freshmen in the lineup keeping themselves occupied while waiting for the NBA Draft to hurry up and arrive. There was some senior leadership on that team from Darius Miller, who had stayed the course for four years. There were a couple of sophomores who bolted with the freshmen for the NBA as soon as the season ended with a national championship.
Last year the Wildcats tried to go with four freshmen and a sophomore in the lineup and the wheels came off. Kentucky went 21-12 and lost to something called Robert Morris in the NIT. Two of the four freshmen left for the NBA. The sophomore transferred. The two freshmen who dared to stay – Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress – probably wish now they had listened to their banker rather than John Calipari.
This year they are going with five freshmen in the lineup with Cauley-Stein and Poythress coming off the bench. They’ve lost eight games. They got beaten in Rupp by Florida and by an Arkansas team that was road kill at Texas A&M and Georgia. There have been times this season when Calipari questioned their effort. He continuously makes excuses that they are just so darn young.
If Kentucky is too young and, as Calipari has suggested, has players who have quit on the coach, then who is to blame for that? The coach is the one who designed this system.
When the season ends for the Wildcats, there is every good chance there will be another mass exodus. Julius Randle, James Young and Cauley-Stein have a foot out the door. If the Harrison Twins decide to come back back – they might bolt even if they are second rounders – that might qualify as the upset of the century. Poythress could bolt for the NBA and hope someone would take him in the second round. He could also transfer, which might not be a bad idea. Calipari has another class of McDonald’s All-Americans coming in next year. Someone will have to sit. Last year he was a surefire first rounder, often spoken of in lottery terms. This year he languishes on the bench while freshmen flip the off-on play hard switch when they’re on the floor. No one ever accused Alex of not playing hard.
They can boast all they want in the Big Blue Nation about how many millionaires their way has produced since Calipari became their head coach but how many of these guys will be ready to face life? How many of these guys will have the foundation to face adversity when it arrives? How many of these guys understand about sticking with something even if it takes years and working hard to smooth out the rough edges? How many of these guys understand that winning – whether you’re talking basketball or life – is a process you go through?
Even if Kentucky miraculously finds a way to play to its talented potential both Saturday and moving forward this season, it won’t prove that their way is working. It will simply mean that for a few games talent prevailed.
Meanwhile, win or lose Saturday, Billy Donovan and those four seniors will not only have something to celebrate but something to show for their four-year investment into the University of Florida.
Make no mistake about it. Florida vs. Kentucky is all about Donovan’s way vs. Calipari’s way. You will know which way is the best way when you see those four seniors take the court.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
KENTUCKY (22-8, 12-5 SEC): Julius Randle (6-9, 250, FR); Dakari Johnson (7-0, 265, FR); James Young (6-6, 215, FR); Aaron Harrison (6-6, 218, FR); Andrew Harrison (6-6, 215, FR)
FLORIDA (28-2, 17-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)