SEC Hoops is all about Billy D

Most of the dust has settled from this season's basketball coaching moves. While it was a fairly quiet year for much of the country, three SEC jobs are in different hands than they were at the start of the 2008-09 season. The caliber of coaching in the conference looks to be the highest it has ever been, and no person is a bigger factor in that than Billy Donovan.

Donovan's decision to remain at Florida despite being sought after by Kentucky for the second time in 23 months made clear that Gator basketball is not going away despite their two most recent seasons ending in the NIT. The signal sent by turning Kentucky down the first time was muted by Donovan's fling with the Orlando Magic a few weeks later. Now, without the guilt factor of leaving to coach against kids he'd just coached to a national championship and with no chance of an NBA opportunity for a minimum of three more years, numerous observers wondered how he could turn UK down. Donovan's answer was the same - Gainesville is where he'll stay.

By not going to Kentucky, Donovan opened the door for John Calipari to ascend to the throne in Lexington. His presence there not only upgrades their program, but gives the SEC a much needed storyline to attract national media interest with the conference's new ESPN contract beginning. After a year filled with incessant criticism by basketball gurus, that's good news. Even if Calipari wins big though, his influence won't begin to measure up to Donovan's. That's always been expected at UK.

Alabama bringing in Donovan protege Anthony Grant as their coach not only represents a clear upgrade from Mark Gottfried, it sends a message. The Crimson Tide are willing to spend what it takes to try and win. It's very doubtful an unquestioned "football school" like Alabama would have ever spent $2 million a year on a basketball coach prior to Donovan's success showing greatness in both sports simultaneously is possible. Grant and John Pelphrey at Arkansas mean that 25 percent of the SEC is either coached by Donovan or one of his former assistants.

The five SEC coaching moves made in the two seasons since UF's back-to-back titles have been clear upgrades in quality as schools have looked to match the Gators' accomplishments. LSU's Trent Johnson and South Carolina's Darrin Horn each had led teams to the Sweet 16 prior to their hiring. Johnson led his initial team to the conference title, while Horn won ten games in the SEC. In seven years under former coach Dave Odom, the Gamecocks had never mustered a winning conference record. (Donovan's former UF player and staff member Eddie Nunez was coordinator of the search that led to LSU hiring Johnson.)

Try to pick out the weak link among the SEC basketball coaches today. Based on his career record you might point to Jeff Lebo, but he had Auburn within a made three pointer of going to the NIT's Final Four. Andy Kennedy dealt with terrible injuries at Ole Miss this season but still did a terrific job keeping them afloat. He also found the SEC's most exciting new star in freshman of the year Terrico White.

Those two are the only two conference coaches without an NCAA appearance on their resumes yet, and the other ten coaches have all won at least one tournament game in their careers. Half a dozen have reached the Sweet 16. There's never been a time when so many schools seemed committed to success in basketball, and it all stems from the belief it can happen if they can just hire their own Billy Donovan.


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