Billy Donovan is all too familiar with South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin. When Donovan arrived at the University of Florida back in 1995, one of the first people he befriended in the state of Florida was Martin, who was the head coach at Miami High from 1995-98 where he won three consecutive state championships. Martin’s program produced Brent Wright and Udonis Haslem, who became two of the early pillars of Florida basketball success under Donovan.
In the years since they met, Donovan has gone on the fast track to what will be a Basketball Hall of Fame career. His 10th-ranked Gators (11-2) are more than halfway toward their 16th consecutive 20-win season and if the stars align the right way, this Florida team could make a very deep run into the NCAA Tournament.
Martin’s path to the big time wasn’t quite as direct as Donovan’s. After laboring as a high school coach, Martin caught on as an assistant coach at Northeastern, then at Cincinnati under Bob Huggins. Martin went to Kansas State with Huggins in 2006 and when his boss left for West Virginia after one season, Martin was elevated to head coach. Martin was hired by South Carolina in 2012 where he took what had been a very bad team the year before and made it a respectable 14-18. Now in year two, the rebuilding at South Carolina continues as the Gamecocks have forged a 7-6 record complete with a four-game winning streak they will bring to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center tonight when they face the Gators in the first SEC game of the season for both teams (7 p.m., CSS TV).
Donovan and Martin squared off two years ago when Martin was at K-State and the Gators faced South Carolina last year, so both coaches have a pretty good idea of what the other will bring to the table tonight.
“I think the first thing is, Frank has a good system and they’re going to play a certain way,” Donovan said at his Monday media event. “They’re going to play to an identity that he wants his team to play to. They’re going to rebound the ball very well. They’re going to defend very well.”
Florida played one of its best defensive games of the year last season, holding South Carolina to 10 first half points en route to a 75-36 win at the O-Dome. The Gamecocks are much improved this year, but part of the reason is Martin has better personnel. The Gamecocks will start three freshmen, one sophomore and one senior against the Gators tonight. They’re bigger than they were last year when Michael Carerra had to play power forward at an undersized 6-6, 200.
“The guys who absorbed the majority of minutes last year for them are not there really anymore,” Donovan said. “Carrera is a guy as a freshman who played a lot last year and he’s coming off the bench for them. They have a lot of new faces, a lot of new personnel. I think they have some very good young players that like anything else when you’re playing a lot of freshmen and younger guys there are going to be some growing pains and some ups and downs. That’s going to be a part of their development and growth.
“I think the team that people remember from South Carolina last year is totally different than this year’s team and the number one difference is maybe not style of play but it’s their personnel.”
GAME NOTES: A win for the Gators tonight would tie the school record for most consecutive wins (24) at the O-Dome … Casey Prather leads the Gators in scoring at 17.3 points per game, one of five Gators averaging in double figures. Michael Frazier (11.9), Scottie Wilbekin (11.8), Patric Young (10.8) and Dorian Finney-Smith (10.1) are the other four … Finney-Smith is Florida’s leading rebounder at 7.7 per game. Young brings down 5.9 rebounds per game and Prather is good for 5.8 … Frazier is hitting 49.3% of his 3-point attempts … The Gators are giving up only 58.7 points per game, which ranks among the top 10 nationally.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
SOUTH CAROLINA (7-6, 0-0 SEC): Demetrius Henry (6-9, 215, FR); Mindaugas Kacinas (6-7, 210, SO); Sindarius Thornwell (6-5, 206, FR); Brenton Williams (5-11, 172, SR); Duane Notice (6-2, 221, FR)
FLORIDA (11-2, 0-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Paric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)