A smattering of Gator fans showed up in Dallas on Friday. By far and away, Kentucky is the best-represented fan base early on the weekend of the Final Four, but of course Kentucky is considered a basketball school over and above anything else.
It’s been a running joke for a while for Gators fans that they’re actually a basketball school these days, particularly after the 2013 football campaign. You could say Billy Donovan has single-handedly brought Florida basketball to prominence and at least during basketball season, many fans in orange and blue do consider Florida a basketball school.
Donovan says whatever people want to think is fine. He’ll do his job the same way regardless.
“If football season is going on, that doesn't have any impact on me and what I'm doing,” the Gators head coach said from the Final Four in Dallas.” I'm going to do the same thing whether it's at Florida or somewhere else. I'm going to try to be locked in to figure out how can we get better in the weight room, individual instruction, coaching, what do we need to do.”
It’s been well documented that Florida’s last loss was against UConn on the road four months ago. And that their second game of the year against Wisconsin was their only other loss of the season. Even at the time, a lot of people were scratching their heads about having those games on the schedule in the first place.
Billy says those games serve a specific purpose.
“That early in the season, we're all trying to get to know our team better, to see how we respond against high level competition. You're also trying to get somewhat prepared for your league play because you know you're going to go into some difficult places to play.
So for us those two early road games at UConn, at Wisconsin, I thought they were really helpful to our team moving forward and in terms of where we needed to improve and get better.”
It must have worked because the Gators haven’t lost since their game at UConn, but more importantly, they have gotten healthier and better as the season has gone on.
“I think UConn is playing their best basketball of the year,” Scottie Wilbekin said at the podium. “And so are we.”
In the last few years the NCAA has dropped a basketball court in the middle of a football stadium to host their national championship. It takes some getting used to for the players to find the rim in a cavernous arena. Teams used to have just one shoot around, now they’re allowed full-blown practices on the game court.
“The NCAA's given every school an opportunity to get multiple practice opportunities here from Thursday for an hour and a half. Today there will be an open practice as well. Shoot?around times the day of the game,” Donovan explained.
“We had the opportunity last year to play here, so for some of our guys, it is a familiar place. But I think there's enough time to get ready and play in this kind of venue, because it is a little bit different.”
This year’s Final Four shows there are several ways to be successful in college basketball these days. While the Gators can start four seniors, Kentucky puts five freshmen on the floor. Donovan says that’s not what matters to him.
“Couple years ago we had Bradley Beal, who left after one year. I really am not bothered with it one way or the other. We're looking for people that would fit how we want to play,” Bill said when asked about having players on campus for a short time.
“I think in recruiting, as coaches, we lose a lot more than we sign. We hear a lot more nos than we do yeses. So I think again, the fit for us and what we're looking for is what is important. But I haven't changed in terms of, well, I'm not going to recruit this guy because he may only be in college for a year or two. If it's a fit for us, I look at it as a blessing, you've had him for a year. If it's a guy like Patric Young who has elected to stay for four years, it's a great thing for us as well. So more the fit is what I'm interested in.”
And as far as how you measure success when it comes to college basketball? Donovan doesn’t like how there’s a process that’s expected of every player to make the next step to the NBA. Because most don’t.
“I saw an article, was really sad, it was about kids that had stayed in college for four years and had unbelievable careers, deep runs in the tournament, Final Fours, and I don't know all the players it mentioned, but they were not in the NBA. They were overseas. They viewed themselves as failures,” Donovan explained.
“That's kind of maybe a societal issue where we start to deem what success is for a lot of these kids. And if they don't make it to the NBA, then their college career means nothing, is nothing. I feel bad that a lot of kids walk off a college campus if they have been there for four years and view themselves as being anything less than successful. Seriously, it bothers me when I hear stories like that. “
Which is why he has been for a while, and remains, my favorite person in sports.