The Master and the Apprentice

Okay, so Saturday night won't be quite the same as Obi wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker fighting it out for control of the galaxy. Still you gotta love the sub-plot to the Florida/Arkansas basketball game in Fayetteville.

Billy Donovan will coach against his former assistant John Pelphrey for the second time, but for the first time as rivals in the same conference. Donovan and the Gators dominated Pelphrey's South Alabama team 76-50 in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, but this is very different. Pelphrey is the one with the taller, faster more experienced squad while Donovan is the guy with the upstart squad of five freshmen and three sophomores.

Both teams are coming off their most significant wins of the season. Florida put an 86-64 drubbing on then No. 14 ranked Vanderbilt, while Arkansas handed Mississippi State its first SEC loss in impressive fashion, 78-58.

Pelphrey is one of three former Donovan assistants now succeeding as head coaches along with Anthony Grant (VCU) and Donnie Jones (Marshall). Donovan was asked if he takes pride in developing a "coaching tree".

"I don't know if pride is the right word," he said. "I think that more than anything else I'm happy. When you are with these guys every day and you see the time they put in and the sacrifices they make I think more than anything else I'm just excited our program has had enough success that people look at these guys."

"I'm proud because I think they've all done well," he added. "It's no different for me than when I look at a guy like Al Horford or Joakim (Noah) or Matt Bonner or any of these guys at the next level. You hope they're prepared to do well and help the team. I think all of those guys (players and coaches) have been able to go to different places and be successful."

Still you cannot deny the reality that it's more than a little awkward to be coaching against someone who has meant a great deal to you for a number of years. Donovan has had that experience from both sides, having played for and coached under Rick Pitino only to end up coaching against his mentor when he took the Florida job. So I asked the Florida Coach what was more difficult, coaching against a mentor or a protégée.

"It's different in a lot of ways," Donovan said. "Obviously, I worked for and coached with Coach Pitino for five years, but I think in his eyes I'm always a player. Going against him is a little bit different in that the respect level I have for him and what he's been able to do for me. In my world you look at your coach a little differently than maybe I look at John or Anthony or any of those guys. Even though I was an assistant coach when John was playing, it's not like he was playing for me. It's more like we grew up together.

"I think both situations are hard because you are dealing with someone who has been very close in your life," he added. "You're dealing with someone who has made a lot of sacrifices. For John and I we both lost children and both our children are buried here in Gainesville. So there's a lot of things that have happened in life away from basketball that have created a connection that when you get into competition it always feels uncomfortable leading into the game. I think once the game starts both guys will be coaching and both teams will be playing."

John Pelphrey and Billy Donovan have been friends for more than a decade and they'll be friends for decades to come. Neither will look forward to Saturday night from a competitive standpoint, but Bob Knight, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski have all faced the "braches" of their coaching tree through the years. The more success Donovan and the Gators have, the more that tree is likely to grow, creating more matchups between the master and the apprentice.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel


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