UK basketball notebook: Donovan glad he stayed in Gainesville

Herald-Leader Staff WriterOctober 30, 2011 

About to enter his 16th season at Florida, Billy Donovan knows he's an exception to the rule of nomadic coaches. If he didn't know, one of his colleagues drove home that point during a conversation earlier this year. The coach, whom Donovan declined to identify, told him how lucky he was to have a secure, long-lasting job with the Gators.

"My daughter's grown now," the coach told Donovan. "She came to me. She's getting married. She says, 'I don't know where to get married. I don't know where home is. Where's home?'"

Cynical sportswriters at SEC Media Day on Thursday fell silent.

"And he said it broke his heart," Donovan said.

Donovan feels fortunate to have coached only for Florida since arriving in Gainesville in 1996 as "Billy the Kid."

Now 46, he's one of the most successful coaches in Southeastern Conference history. Only Adolph Rupp (20), Dale Brown (13) and Nolan Richardson (13) have taken more SEC teams to the NCAA Tournament than Donovan's 11. Of SEC coaches who have won 10 or more NCAA Tournament games, only Rick Pitino has a higher winning percentage than Donovan's .735. Only Rupp's six trips to the Final Four exceed Donovan's three.

So success has something to do with Donovan staying at Florida long enough to be the dean of SEC coaches. But it's not the only reason. Of course, more than once, Kentucky supposedly pursued him. And for a day or two in 2007, Donovan took the job as coach of the Orlando Magic.

When asked why he'd stayed at Florida, Donovan thought for a moment and said, "I made a lot of decisions early in my career when it was just me and my wife (Christine)."

Now, Donovan and his wife have four children.

"With four other ones being affected by it, it's a little bit different to pick up and leave like you want to, you know?" he said. "Not to say they held me back or pinned me down."

Donovan took their feelings into consideration.

Kentucky first approached Donovan in 2007, when UK ultimately made an ill-fated hiring: Billy Gillispie.

UK's second flirtation with Donovan came in 2009. By then, his oldest son, also named Billy, was about to enter his senior year of high school.

"Do I take my senior out of high school?" Donovan said. "Or do I leave him in Gainesville, and go somewhere else? Do you know what I mean? Now, 'Geez, my dad wasn't even here.'

"How does he, 25 years from now, view that decision?"

Donovan cited other reasons for staying at Florida all these years, The man who hired him, Jeremy Foley, remains athletic director. "I think that has a lot to do with it," Donovan said.

Florida made and maintained a commitment to basketball. Donovan also takes personal pride in guiding what he called "a quote-unquote non-traditional basketball school" to national championships in 2006 and 2007.

Donovan also noted Florida's modest basketball history. The program had an all-time SEC record of 398-513 when Donovan became coach. Entering 2011-12, Florida has had winning league records in 12 of the last 13 seasons (the exception was a 8-8 mark in 2008).

"To me, that brings incredible value just being part of it," Donovan said. "And realizing it's not me. It's Jeremy Foley. It's the players. It's the coaches. Everybody has contributed to it."

Now, Donovan is a transformational figure. He showed other SEC schools, besides Kentucky, what was possible. He's in the final stages of signing a contract extension.

And his children know where home is.

Competition/cooperation

During his appearance at the SEC Media Day, UK Coach John Calipari noted that he had not paired sophomore Terrence Jones and freshman Anthony Davis in the same practice lineup yet.

Competition trumps cooperation at this stage of the pre-season.

"I'm trying to keep them playing against each other and compete," Calipari said. "The reason Darius Miller has improved so much is because he's going against Michael Gilchrist. If you don't show up for practice, you're going to get dunked on, and so will Michael. Michael's not gone against someone like Darius."

The same is true of Jones and Davis.

"If he (Jones) doesn't get into his body to shoot the ball, it gets blocked," Calipari said. "If you don't go above the rim to rebound the ball, you're not getting the ball."

So, Doron Lamb competes against Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer faces Eloy Vargas.

Jones vs. Jones

Terrence Jones noted how much he's improved from his freshman to sophomore years.

That prompted a question: How would Jones the sophomore fare against Jones the freshman?

"I would kill myself," he said. "He can't force me one way this year compared to last year."

Jones was too dependent on his left hand as a freshman.

"I'm playing with more confidence driving the ball both ways and taking bumps," he said.

UK welcomes depth

Terrence Jones noted the impact depth can have for Kentucky this season.

"I take every team more serious and respect every team a lot more and don't underestimate any team," he said.

When asked if he was implying that he underestimated teams last season, Jones said, "Not really. We didn't have enough guys play as well as they normally do in some away games. The team we had last year we couldn't afford that only playing six guys. We couldn't have two guys have a bad night and still try to win when another team is playing good at home."

Father-son affair

Florida Coach Billy Donovan's oldest son, also named Billy, is a sophomore guard at Catholic University, a Division III school in Washington, D.C.

Florida plays Catholic U. in an exhibition game on Thursday.

"He's looking forward to it," Donovan said of the game. "Once the game gets started, I'll probably talk a little trash to him. Yell at him."

Then Donovan added, "My wife's not too happy."

The younger Donovan, a 6-1 guard, averaged 4.3 minutes and 1.4 points as a freshman.

When a reporter playfully suggested Donovan throw a box-and-one defense on his son, Donovan laughed and said he might try something different. "Tell the players to give him every shot he wants," he said.

Good first impression

Freshman Anthony Hickey of Hopkinsville made a good first impression on LSU Coach Trent Johnson.

Noting Hickey's 17 assists and three turnovers in the team's first three scrimmages, Johnson said, "It's hard not to get excited."

When a reporter asked if it were fair to say LSU did not play with a "true" point guard last season, Johnson chuckled and said, "It's fair to say we didn't play with a lot of everything last year."

LSU had an 11-21 record (3-13 in the SEC) last season.

Of Hickey, Johnson said, "First and foremost, he's coachable." Hickey adds quickness and a competitive spirit.

"The game is important to him," Johnson said. "A lot of guys, it's not the competition. It's me, me, me (and) I, I, I."

Hardship a plus?

The NCAA Board of Directors voted to allow conferences to consider paying athletes as much as $2,000 per school year to cover expenses.

While not opposing financial assistance for players, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings suggested there was an upside to being the prototypical empty-pocketed college student.

"I didn't come from affluence," he said, "and I did without. I didn't have money in my pocket one Christmas Day. There is a lesson in there, too. I benefited from doing without."

Benefited?

"It made me work harder," Stallings said. "It made me aspire to more. It made me more motivated."

The Vandy coach stressed that he does not advocate abandoning any assistance. On Thanksgivings, he has all players to his home for dinner.

But, he added, "hardship is not always bad. Adversity is not always a negative."

Home alone

When Mississippi State went on a five-game, 10-day tour of Europe this off-season, Coach Rick Stansbury left basketball wunderkind and sometimes problem child Renardo Sidney at home.

Stansbury called it a disciplinary decision. While the State team toured Europe, Sidney worked out at the Houston facility operated by John Lucas.

A reporter asked Stansbury if the discipline produced the desired result.

"I will say this," the State coach said, "Everything about him is better. Is he perfect? No. But he's making progress. If he'll keep doing what he's doing, we're going to get there. I feel good about what he's done to this point."

Sidney needed to improve his attitude, work ethic and coachability, Stansbury said before adding, "He's better in all those areas."

Pelphrey comeback?

Former UK player John Pelphrey returned to Florida as an assistant coach. He had been the head coach at Arkansas.

Pelphrey, 43, has been playing pickup basketball to keep in shape, Florida Coach Billy Donovan said.

When asked how well Pelphrey plays these days, Donovan cracked, "When I walk by, they're not moving very quickly. And John was not known as a speedster. He's actually moving in reverse, now."

'Actual villain'

Reader Eric Hatton suggested that Christian Laettner was not the main villain in Duke's famous 104-103 victory over Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Tournament.

"The actual villain from the infamous Laettner snafu was Rick Pitino," Hatton wrote in an email. "Of course, it's been debated both ways. But the tallest guy with the longest arms should have been on the Duke in-bounds player. ... If that UK player had been asleep on the bench, he should've been awakened and given that task. No way in @#$% an accurate long-distance pass could've been made such as the one Laettner received. I consider Pitino's play-call the most asinine ever in basketball. Oh, well, such is sports entertainment."

Hatton, 59, lives in Salt Lick. He's a retired state social worker who now works as a substitute teacher in Morgan County.

Hatton wrote that he keeps up with UK basketball through the newspaper, and only occasionally watches games on TV.

"I decided there's only so many ways to throw that ball through the hoop," he wrote, "and I've seen them."

Generous Cal

In coordination with Wednesday's exhibition game, Transylvania stages a fund-raising dinner Sunday night. About 390 tickets were sold for the event.

Transy spokesman Glenn Osborne noted that UK Coach John Calipari deserves credit for the dinner idea.

"The thing that really hasn't been mentioned is that this fund-raising dinner was proposed by Cal and UK to help out Transy athletics after we agreed to play the exhibition game," Osborne wrote in an email. "They approached us and offered to have the (UK) coaches and players attend the dinner, have Cal speak, and auction off a signed basketball with all proceeds going to Transy.

"I haven't heard of many instances of larger schools doing something so generous for a smaller school in the same city. The money we raise would be insignificant to a Division I school, but it will make an enormous difference in our budget for the coming year."

Blue Ribbon day

One of the highlights of every SEC Media Day is receiving a copy of the Blue Ribbon yearbook from editor Chris Dortch. No other preview magazine or yearbook is as comprehensive in examining the upcoming college basketball season on a national scale.

The yearbook is available at Blueribbonyearbookonline.com. There is a traditional bound book for those who like to turn pages (blush) and a new iPad version available through the Web site.

Happy birthday

To former UK assistant Gale Catlett. He turns 71 on Monday. ... To Dale Brown. The former LSU coach turns 76 on Monday. To former Georgia Coach Hugh Durham. He turned 74 on Wednesday. ... To Roy Kramer. The former SEC commissioner turns 82 Sunday. ... To former UK walk-on Michael Parks. He turns 41 Sunday.

Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at jtipton@herald-leader.com.

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