HOOPS: Can Billy Coach? The Numbers Don't Lie

A day later, Billy Donovan has watched Kelenna Azubuike's shot at least a dozen times and every time he watches, he still holds his breath. The shot looked that good when it left Azubuike's hand Sunday afternoon and it looks that good every time it's replayed. The fact that Azubuike plays for Kentucky probably has something to do with why it looks so good.

Kentucky has a habit of hitting last second shots to win big games and because of that kind of tradition, the Wildcats always have players that the rest of the country would drool to have on their rosters. Those kinds of players make last second shots.

A funny thing happened on the way to the nylon, though. No matter how good that shot looked when Azubuike took it and no matter how good it looks on the replay, it's always short and a little off center.

As he walked out of his weekly media luncheon Monday afternoon, Donovan said the shot "still looks dead center to me and from where I was standing it was down! I mean it was down!"

So what's the difference in Florida winning by a point or losing by two Sunday? Maybe an inch, or perhaps even only a half inch would have put the ball dead center and Azubuike would go down in Kentucky laurels as a guy like Tayshaun Prince or Gerald Fitch, guys who beat the Florida Gators with a last second shot. Maybe if Prince or Fitch had been a half inch or an inch off one way or another, there wouldn't be this knock on Billy Donovan for his coaching against Kentucky.

The fact that Kentucky had won eight games in a row against Donovan and the Gators has been a point of contention for a number of Florida fans who seem to think that Donovan is a great recruiter but only a decent coach who got lucky back in 2000 when he had the Gators squaring off with Michigan State for the national championship. Those same fans are the ones who look at Florida's 53-52 win over Kentucky, Sunday, and say "it's about time" instead of taking a look at the fact that in the previous eight straight losses to Kentucky, three of them were by three points and two of them by a deuce.

Kentucky had won eight in a row, that's for sure, but it's not exactly like the Wildcats were simply blowing the doors off the Gators. They were tightly contested games that could have gone the Gators' way. Had Florida won those five close ones instead of taking a loss, would the same critics claim that Donovan is such an average coach?

It should also be considered that the years are rare when Kentucky's not considered a national championship contender and the fact that Kentucky's Rupp Arena is twice the size of the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. While Florida rarely sells out, Kentucky will sell out Rupp for an intrasquad game. Had Jeremy Foley announced at 12 noon on Saturday that (1) all 12,000 tickets for Sunday's Florida-Kentucky game were up for sale and (2) the only ones who could buy them were Kentucky fans who actually live in the state of Kentucky, those tickets would have been sold within three hours and Sunday's game would have been packed by the Big Blue.

In terms of facilities and tradition, Kentucky's got it all over the Gators While Florida will never have Kentucky's facilities for basketball or the tradition that being the winningest school in college basketball history brings you, the Gators have shown they belong with the big boys. Florida is the only Southeastern Conference school other than Kentucky to win at least 20 games each of the last seven seasons.

Florida has been to the Final Four twice (1994 and 2000). Kentucky's WON seven NCAA championships, made it to the Final Four 13 times and since World War II, there have been only 11 seasons when the Wildcats didn't win at least 20 games. On the other hand, 40 years ago when the Gators finally beat Kentucky for the first time, Florida won 18 games. That was the most in school history at the time. A couple of years later, Florida got its first 20-win season. It was the 1986-87 season that Florida next got a 20-win season and made its first NCAA appearance in the school's history. By the time Florida finally made the Big Dance, Kentucky had already won give national championships. By the time Billy Donovan was even born, the Wildcats had won four.

And if you want to put it in a little bit better perspective, consider this: Adolph Rupp holds the all-time SEC record with 14 consecutive 20-win seasons. Tubby Smith is second with 10 (two at Georgia, eight at Kentucky). Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino are tied for third with seven each. Don Devoe did it six times. Nolan Richardson only did it five times in the SEC although he had five more at Arkansas when the Razorbacks were in the Southwest Conference. Rupp had another run of five in a row as did Joe B. Hall. Dale Brown and C.M. Newton also had runs of five consecutive 20-win seasons.

That puts Billy Donovan in pretty darn good company. What he's done is truly remarkable considering Florida's lack of basketball tradition prior to his arrival and that the SEC is traditionally one of the best basketball leagues in the entire NCAA.

Getting to 20 wins for the seventh straight year is a sign of the stability and strength that Donovan has brought to Florida. Florida would win 21 in 1966-67, first time in school history over the 20-win barrier, and it wasn't until 1986-87 that the Gators broke the 20-win barrier again with 23 under Norm Sloan. Pre-Donovan the Gators have had five 20-win seasons in school history and Sloan's run of three in a row in the 1980s that produced 67 wins was the best ever three-year stretch until Billy came along.

For those who say all he can do is recruit, take a look at the coaching job he's done the last two years. In 2004 he won 20 games with the youngest team in the NCAA and what was rated the number one toughest schedule in the nation. He did it that year with smoke and mirrors because Florida had only one way to beat people and that was if Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson and David Lee were all on their game on the same night. They reached number one in the rankings at one point and made it to the SEC championship game playing a soft zone defense. That was necessary because this team flat out couldn't defend and because Christian Drejer's midseason defection to the pro leagues in Spain left the team in a lurch for personnel.

This has probably been the best coaching job that Donovan has done in his nine years at Florida. He's had to integrate two freshmen into the starting lineup and give two more significant minutes off the bench. Two sophomores are also quick off the bench. He's had to deal with the four-game loss to injury of Matt Walsh and losing Adrian Moss for a significant part of the season with a back injury. He's gotten both the young players and his upperclassmen to buy into a change of philosophy, too.

This year Donovan did a makeover for the Gators. It didn't happen overnight and there were nights when the coach was wondering when the team would finally get it, but once they really got comfortable with playing defense and rebounding, the team really took off. What this has done is give the Gators more than one way to beat the other team. Last year it was outshoot and outscore the opponent or die. This year, the Gators love to run but for teams that want to grind it out, Florida is more than ready to go at it.

Last season, Florida was ninth to twelfth in almost every significant defensive category. This year the Gators rank third in the league in scoring defense, first in scoring margin, fifth in field goal defense, fifth in three point defense, second in the league in rebounding margin and second in the league in blocked shots. Florida is holding teams to 63.1 points per game, best for the Gators since the 1964-65 team.

As this Gator team has grown up, we've seen the transition also in terms of mental toughness as well as toughness on the floor. Two years ago Matt Bonner caught a forearm to the back of the head in the SEC Tournament and there was no retaliation by the Gators. A year ago there was more of the same as teams could get physical without fear of retaliation. As Georgia found out the hard way, Adrian Moss has powerful elbows. His first elbow to the face of a Bulldog last week was a warning. The second one was a statement. When Moss came into the game against Kentucky on Sunday even the physical Wildcats who back down from no one gave him plenty of room. The word is out: try to take out a Gator and risk being taken out yourself.

Donovan has tried to downplay the significance of Florida's win over the third-ranked Wildcats on Monday, but it's impossible to overlook how important that win was for the Gators. It was a statement game, a statement about the present and a statement about the future. Florida is no worse than the second best basketball program in the SEC. There's no question that Kentucky is at the top and that Tubby Smith is the best coach. However, the numbers don't lie about Billy Donovan. The numbers of the last seven seasons speak volumes as do the numbers of the last six weeks of the 2004-05 season.

Donovan doesn't have the program where he wants it to be and it's questionable if anyone in the SEC will ever consistently top Kentucky given the amount of money, support, facilities and tradition the Wildcats have. But if anyone is going to challenge Kentucky, Billy Donovan and Florida are safe bets. The numbers don't lie.

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