Billy Donovan, John Calipari rivalry brews

Erving Walker drove down the lane and cut to the left of the rim as he went up for the layup, but Darius Miller flew in and smashed his shot away with a thunderous thud.

Florida led 24-23 in the SEC Tournament championship game, but the message had been sent: This is Kentucky’s court.

Riding the momentum of Miller’s monstrous rejection, the Wildcats went on to win 70-54, claiming their nation-leading 28th conference tournament title.

“They’ve got more SEC Championships than the whole entire league combined,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said Monday on an SEC teleconference call. “I think it’s great having a program like that in this league because certainly they are a measuring stick of what it really means to have a great, great program.”

Kentucky has long been the poster-child for elite college basketball success, with more wins and a higher winning percentage than any other program in history.

In fact, there are few teams in any sport that can boast the type of dominance over their league that Kentucky has had over the SEC.

With 46 overall SEC titles, there’s no mistaking Kentucky’s legacy on the hardwood.

“I think being at Kentucky for five years and then being here now going on 16, Kentucky tradition-wise has got more tradition than anybody else in college basketball,” Donovan said. “I think when you look at a program like that, every program is trying to aspire to build that kind of tradition. Whether it’s been Adolf Rupp or Joe B. Hall or Eddie Sutton or Coach (Rick) Pitino or John Calipari or Tubby Smith, Kentucky’s program has been at the elite level all the way through.”

Lately, though, Donovan’s dented the seemingly impenetrable armor the Wildcats wear.

Since his arrival at Florida, he has helped loosen the stranglehold Kentucky has kept over the league for decades and decades.

Only one of Kentucky’s eight national titles has come during Billy the Kid’s tenure, and it was in 1998, just the second year of his tenure.

Since then, the former Kentucky assistant has helped build Florida’s tradition from the ground up.

Now, there’s a new kid on the block.

Since Donovan led the Gators to their first national championship appearance in 2000 with a remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament, the Gators have reaped the benefits of their masterful mentor’s approach to the game.

The arrival of Billy Ball signaled the end of Kentucky’s complete and utter domination of the Southeastern Conference.

Over the past 10 years, it’s the now-graying Billy the Kid’s Gators who have led the league.

With a 258-91 (.739) record over the past decade, Donovan’s Florida teams have won more games than any other team in the SEC.

Kentucky, predictably, is second with a 243-90 (.730) record.

But Florida hasn’t just won more games than the Wildcats in the past 10 years. They’ve done so with the flair and style Kentucky grew famous for over the years.

Nobody will ever forget Joakim Noah’s absurdly ridiculous, but absolutely hilarious dance after Florida won its third-straight SEC Tournament title in 2007.

Nobody will ever forget hearing “One Shining Moment” after Florida won its first national championship, or again when it won its second.

Nobody will ever forget the gut-wrenching, tear-soaked press conference the ‘04s used to announce their decision to go to the NBA as a team.

And, after a rough two years following their departure, Donovan has his Gators back in the title hunt. Florida basketball recruiting is better than ever.

If Donovan wants Florida to ever rival Kentucky’s tradition, it has to be.

“They’ve got a terrific guy in there right now, in John,” Donovan said. “He’s done a terrific job. But Kentucky’s always going to be Kentucky.”

The task for Donovan is simple: He has to beat Calipari, who whisked the Wildcats out of mediocrity and placed them back at the forefront of college basketball with a pair of the best recruiting classes in college basketball history.

If he doesn’t, Calipari and the ‘Cats will claw their way back to the crown they wore for decades as the king of college basketball.