D. and G. not so hot anymore

A-list coaches on verge of missing NCAA Tournament

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 7, 2009 

John Clay

Billy D. and Billy G.

Two years ago, they were the hot properties among college basketball coaches. Billy Donovan was coaching Florida to its second consecutive NCAA title. Billy Gillispie was coaching chronic doormat Texas A&M to an NCAA Sweet 16 showing. Rivals took notice. Rivals made offers.

Donovan rejected an offer to captain the Kentucky battleship. He clearly had the itch, later accepting an offer to coach the NBA's Orlando Magic only to experience an emotional change of mind a weekend later and U-turn back to Gainesville.

Arkansas had its sights on the rising star Gillispie, but when Billy D. turned down Big Blue, Billy G. slipped off to Kentucky instead. A deal was struck — the contract remains unsigned — and soon the dedicated if quirky Texan was firing up boot camp at the Craft Center.

Now here they are two years later, two hot properties whose star power has been flushed with coolant, both in dire danger of being excluded from this year's Big Dance.

That would be two straight NCAA-less years for Donovan. The youthful Gators were pushed off the invitation list last season, prompting Donovan to question their pride and work ethic. This year, the Gators are a year older but not much better. Their conference mark is 8-7. They've lost three straight.

Kentucky has concern for its own streaks. The Cats have made every NCAA Tournament since rejoining the eligibility list in 1992. But Gillispie's club is also 8-7 in the conference. It has dropped three straight. The Wildcats' RPI ranking (78) sits 25 spots behind that of the Gators (53).

"It's not over yet," Gillispie cautioned on Thursday's SEC teleconference.

That's true, but it's interesting to note the paradoxes facing the two Billys.

Florida has a terrific point guard in Nick Calathes, but no inside presence. Kentucky has an inside presence in Patrick Patterson, but no consistent play at the point.

Kentucky fans are flummoxed by Gillispie's decision to bench Patterson and Meeks two minutes into the second half of Wednesday's home-court loss to Georgia. By the time the duo was reinserted, the visiting Bulldogs had scored 10 straight points to take an eight-point lead.

Yet Florida is one of lowly Georgia's three conference victims, as well. And Donovan gave his star, Calathes, some pine time the final three minutes of Wednesday's loss at Mississippi State when the coach felt the sophomore rushed a three-pointer.

"You have to be thinking about time and score, who has the hot hand, what's the best situation." Donovan told the media the next day.

Sound anything like Gillispie's mantra of "time, score, momentum"?

But Donovan has taken Florida to three title games since the last time Kentucky was in a Final Four. He is the founding father of Gators basketball. He should have a backlog of goodwill in the good-weather state.

Gillispie's grip isn't quite so tight. The good notices he earned during last year's strong second-half run have melted from the heat of this year's fires. The loss to Virginia Military Institute. The Jeannine Edwards interview(s). The head-scratching substitution patterns.

And, finally, that embarrassing home loss to a Georgia team that had lost its previous seven conference road games by an average of 18 points.

"It's going to take time," remarked UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart when asked recently about Gillispie's job performance.

"I knew where we were at (after the titles)," said Donovan after his Gators lost to Tennessee on Sunday, "and that it was going to take some time to get us back."

Saturday in Gainesville, all either of these former hot properties wants is a win.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or (800) 950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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