NEW YORK -- When Billy Donovan is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame someday, it is nearly certain that first on his list of accomplishments will be the back-to-back NCAA championships he won, coaching Florida in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Two programs have done that since John Wooden at UCLA: Mike Krzyzewski's Duke, in 1990-91 and 1991-92, and Donovan's Florida.
But in many ways, what he's done since is more impressive.
No one can forget that summer following the 2007 title, when Donovan took the Orlando Magic head coaching gig, then had second thoughts and returned to Florida.
Sure, contained in Orlando's deal allowing Donovan to go home again was a non-compete clause for the next five years, so everyone knew he couldn't bolt for another NBA job right away. But rebuilding trust in the program, in Donovan's stability there, let alone finding sustained excellence, was anything but certain.
Remember, this wasn't Kentucky. Prior to Donovan, Florida had five NCAA tournament appearances ever. Florida Gators basketball as a power was no sure thing after Donovan, and was a concept to elicit chuckles prior to him.
Well, we're more than six years removed from that summer of 2007. And things have worked out pretty well for Donovan and Florida.
The Gators have reached the Elite Eight in each of the past three seasons. No one else has gotten that far in the past three years. Not John Calipari, who took the Kentucky job after Donovan demurred. No one. If Donovan had merely taken, not retaken the Florida gig in 2007, he'd be one of the hottest coaching prospects in the country. He's still only 48, after all.
But Donovan, blessed with some of the best talent in the country again this year, doesn't look ready to go anywhere. The long-held paradigm for decades, that Florida basketball was doomed to suffer in the shadow of Florida football, has been completely reversed. And Tuesday night, in a 77-75 win over 16th-ranked Memphis at Madison Square Garden, it was possible to imagine this Donovan team -- one winning games early despite injuries, suspensions and youth at critical positions -- might win him another championship as well.
Contrary to his hyperkinetic reputation, Donovan stood upright, like a general, on the sidelines, coat set aside on Tuesday, as much elder statesman as the point guard we saw grow into a coach before our eyes. His gestures were more conductor-like than the traditional gesticulations one found in his opposing number at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, Memphis' Josh Pastner. Other times, Donovan would crouch, barely taller than the scorers' table, and watch the action from down low.
His team is the reliably pleasurable-to-watch combination of quick-action offense, complete with plenty of kick-out 3s and quick-trap defense. And Donovan talks like his team plays, in waves of thoughts, each digression pushing in a direction that ultimately makes sense. It's just that usually, Donovan got there more quickly than you did.
When I brought up the summer of 2007, Donovan put on a look of mock concern and asked, "What happened?" Then he broke into a wide grin and laughed, grabbing my arm to assure me that he didn't mind the question. And why would he? He's rebuilt Florida basketball, arguably, beyond that point.
"I think it's been twice, inside this program, where we've had to start over," Donovan told me as we chatted in a corridor just beyond the press conference room Tuesday night. "And that's the hardest thing to do. You know, when I first got here, there were two losing seasons before I got here. There were two with me here. So it's four straight losing seasons for the program. So then we kind of, got to the national championship game, got to the Sweet 16, we won a couple titles," Donovan listed the résumé of a Hall of Fame coach, almost parenthetically, like it's a grocery list, "And then we lose all those guys. And then we've got to start over. We're at the ground floor. And we go to two NITs.
"So it wasn't really about, for me, the starting over part, although that's hard to swallow, because you work so hard to get to that point. But it's also been very, very rewarding, starting over again at the ground floor. Not that you're gonna win a national championship every year, but you know what? The last three years, we've given ourselves a chance. We've given ourselves a chance to get to the national championship game, to play in the Final Four. We've been right there."
The Gators are probably at their prettiest when senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin plays in the backcourt with talented freshman playmaker Kasey Hill. To suggest Florida is better than they've played so far, then, is as simple as noting Hill's played in five games all season, Wilbekin six, but they've been in just two together.
The first one, a 67-61 win over Andrew Wiggins' Kansas team, included a 31-6 run that all but decided the game in the first half. The second came Tuesday night.
Keep in mind, Florida's most important player may not have even played yet. That would be Chris Walker, a 6-foot-10 freshman, who just qualified and began taking classes at Florida. He didn't play against Memphis, but he isn't far away. And ESPN had him 12th in the country among incoming freshmen, just ahead of Indiana's sensational Noah Vonleh. (Hill was 10th.)
Donovan was working extra hard late Tuesday night at the Garden to downplay expectations for Walker, who he noted hadn't played competitive basketball since February, and weighed in at an ultra-light 203 pounds. He had to repeat that for reporters, drawing some laughter.
"He has the potential to be a very good player, but he is so lost and so far behind," Donovan said. "I think for him, like Kasey Hill and those guys ... Kasey Hill starts lining up against seniors and said, 'Wow, this is a different level.' And Chris Walker's lined up against -- wow, this is a different level. So I can't even say when, where, how much he can help us. I do know I'm happy to have him. He's a great kid. I'm looking forward to coaching him.
"I made this comment after the [Kansas] game -- the fact that anyone is comparing Andrew Wiggins to LeBron James is nuts. It's just crazy. It's not fair to Wiggins ... he's a great player, he's gonna be one-and-done, he's gonna be a high draft pick. But it's not fair to him. And I'm not gonna let that happen to Chris."
Still, without Walker, without much yet from Hill, who Donovan acknowledged "we need to grow up, maybe faster than is fair to him," Florida is 8-2, with two wins over top-25 teams in Kansas and Memphis, and a one-point loss at undefeated Connecticut. So sure, getting contributions from two of the top 12 freshmen in America would be a nice bonus, but Donovan is right, just seeing the guys he has contributing get healthy should be plenty.
"This is our team right now," Donovan said. "This is really our team right now. ... I still think, because of the lack of cohesiveness from us not playing together, I still think there's a ceiling for us to really get better."
Ultimately, Florida Gators basketball could simply be a Donovan creation. But we may not know that for decades. In the meantime, whether it's the consistency of Gator postseason runs, or the screaming, alligator-armed fans who turned Madison Square Garden into Gainesville North on Tuesday night, the program looks better than before Donovan's summer of 2007.
As for the man himself, Donovan may well exceed what he's done the past three seasons. He's much younger than Krzyzewski, or even his mentor from all those years ago at Providence, Rick Pitino. He spoke about the seniors he has, and how they are able to block out their past accomplishments in pursuit of a new goal. It certainly sounded like a blueprint he follows himself.
"I don't get a sense from them like it's 'we want more,'" Donovan explained. "Like I said earlier, I think they're smart enough to know that this is an entirely different year. And that, although they went to three Elite Eights, it's not like, OK, we're just gonna get back there again. I think that they understand, they've been scarred enough, they've been wounded enough through competition, that I don't get that sense from them.
"I think one of the things we've had to battle -- when you're a senior, there's a monotony sometimes, with practice. There's no more new drills. I may come up with some new ideas, or some different things, but the bottom line is, we've gotta play defense. They've got to guard pick-and-rolls every single day. There's things they've got to do that are tedious. And can you crank yourself up every single day, to really start all over, at the ground floor, and start the process over, every single day?"
Donovan has. He, too, has been forced to make the new year the challenge, or even building his program all over again, after nearly leaving it, the challenge. There's no other Donovan out there for him to try and match. In that context, his difficulty deciding back in 2007 makes all the sense in the world. It's got to be awfully difficult to figure out what to do next when the only one you're competing against is yourself.