In 1996, nobody knew that Billy Donovan would become ... well, Billy Donovan. He was another novice coach whose nickname — Billy the Kid — seemed like a description.
Yet after only two seasons as a college coach at Marshall, Donovan found himself a candidate for the job at Florida. That seemed to say more about Florida's lowly status than any feeling of get-me-Donovan-at-any-price.
C.M. Newton, then Kentucky's athletic director and already well-established as a basketball elder statesman, recalled getting a call from Florida's A.D., Jeremy Foley.
Foley wanted to run some names by Newton.
Never miss a local story.
"Billy wasn't on the list," Newton said. "I told him, I'd hire Billy Donovan at Marshall.
But Newton qualified his recommendation.
"If you interview him, you'll think he's way too young," he told Foley. "He's too young-looking."
Foley doesn't remember the conversation the same way. He said he called Newton to talk specifically about Donovan, who began his coaching career on Rick Pitino's staff at UK. How hard did he work? What was his character like? Was he honest? And, yes, was Billy still a kid?
"It was my first big hire," Foley said before Florida beat Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game. "Is he too young? I worried about that."
A meeting with Donovan eased Foley's concerns.
"He was on the edge of his chair for two hours talking about basketball," the Florida A.D. said. "I liked how he had made himself into a good basketball player."
Foley wanted to hire Donovan. But, first, he had to see how Florida President John Lombardi felt about hiring a coach who was only a few years removed from being a college player.
"If that's your guy, go get him," Lombardi told Foley.
There was one more hurdle to cross. Pitino publicly and privately advised Donovan not to take the job. Unrealistic expectations, fueled by a run to the 1994 Final Four, would cripple the new coach.
"Rick told him not to take the job," Foley said. "Thanks, Rick."
Foley countered. "I said, how about if I give him a six-year deal," he said.
The rest is history, literally this season. Florida became the first team to post an 18-0 regular-season record in the SEC, and the first in a BCS conference since Indiana in 1975-76.
When asked to put that achievement in perspective, Newton credited Donovan.
"I think Billy Donovan makes them go more than anything," he said. "He's been able to keep them at an even keel all year, and they avoided all the highs and they avoided all the lows you get."
After Saturday's victory over Pittsburgh, Donovan is the SEC's winningest coach in the NCAA Tournament. He has won 33 times. That's more than Adolph Rupp won for Kentucky (30) or Nolan Richardson for Arkansas (26) or Tubby Smith for Kentucky and Georgia (25) or Pitino for Kentucky (22) or Joe B. Hall for Kentucky (20).
Of course, those coaches either didn't stay at their schools as long as Donovan has been at Florida or coached when the NCAA Tournament had fewer rounds.
Still, it's easy to forget Florida's lowly NCAA Tournament profile prior to hiring Donovan in 1996. The Gators had been to five NCAA Tournaments, and made a splash once by advancing to that 1994 Final Four.
"The goal was to make us relevant," Foley said. "Get in the tournament every single year."
Mission accomplished. Donovan is in the same NCAA tourney company as marquee coaches like John Calipari (39 wins), Bill Self (36), Tom Izzo (40), Eddie Sutton (39) and Denny Crum (42).
"He's a winner," Foley said of Donovan. "He was a winner as a college player. He, obviously, was around winners like Rick Pitino.
"And he's been a winner ever since he got here."
As he walked in Scottrade Center this weekend, Associate Commissioner Mark Whitworth spread the SEC basketball gospel.
Sure, SEC basketball served as a pin cushion this season. The derisive laughter got a bit louder when only three teams — Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee — received bids to the NCAA Tournament. And two of them — Kentucky and Tennessee — saw disrespect in being an 8-seed (UK) and playing in a play-in game (Tennessee).
Yet, Whitworth was undaunted.
"If SEC basketball was a stock, this is a real good time to buy," he said.
A 9-0 start to the post-season put some pep in Whitworth's step. Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee all won openers in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee won twice.
Arkansas, LSU, Missouri and Georgia won NIT openers. Texas A&M won its first game in the College Basketball Invitational.
Those victories suggested SEC basketball this season was not quite as bad as observers said. Although a 4-15 record against ranked teams in the non-conference portion of the schedule can't be ignored.
But as Whitworth emphasized, the SEC has the will to be an elite basketball conference. Commissioner Mike Slive appointed Whitworth full-time to basketball. The effort is there for schools other than Kentucky to follow the lead set by Florida, which has made itself a national entity in college basketball.
"It can be done," Whitworth said of the message sent by Billy Donovan and Florida.
The SEC encourages its schools to play marquee non-conference opponents, improve facilities and promote basketball.
Whitworth noted how Missouri, LSU and Arkansas were on "the edge" of breaking through to the NCAA Tournament this year.
Three bids to the NCAA Tournament last year and this year isn't enough.
"No question we should have twice as many teams competing in the NCAA Tournament on a consistent basis," he said.
But, Whitworth added, SEC basketball is not as bad as it might appear.
In the last 20 years, the league has won six national championships: Arkansas in 1994, Kentucky in 1996, 1998 and 2012, Florida in 2006 and 2007.
The talk of this college basketball season has been physical play. From the beginning, we were told that the referees would adopt "new rules" that called for more foul calls. The idea being to reduce the physical nature of play and increase scoring (and, it was hoped, attendance and television ratings).
Which brings us to Hugh Greenwood, a junior guard for New Mexico.
Greenwood, who calls Tasmania home, is known for a physical style of play.
"That's just the Australian culture," he said. "That's how we have to compete."
So Greenwood, a sturdy and fearless 6-foot-3, considered basketball a contact sport.
"International basketball, European basketball, our basketball is incredibly physical," he said. "I think over here, it's more an athletic (contest). But when you get overseas, it's a grind. It's incredibly physical. I think that's why we always find each other in foul trouble.
"It's the way we play. And over here, I couldn't believe how soft it was. At least once a month, I'll foul out. It's just what happens."
The emphasis on less physical play, especially on the perimeter, required Greenwood to adjust. It was like re-learning how to play basketball.
"I'm not the quickest guy out there," he said. "But one thing I've been able to do is play physical and stay in front of an offensive player. I've had to make an adjustment. I've started to get the hang of it the last couple of months of the season."
John Calipari and other coaches noted how the referees have reduced the emphasis on calling hand-checks and other fouls on the perimeter as the season unfolded.
"Which has been good, for sure," Greenwood said. "But sometimes it's inconsistent. Sometimes, we'll be playing physical, and, bang, they'll start calling those hand-checks."
Hugh Greenwood played in St. Louis with a headband holding back his shoulder-length blond hair. He and several New Mexico players, and Coach Craig Neal, had long hair. It's a tribute to Greenwood's mother, who is a breast cancer survivor.
To further salute Greenwood's mother, players plan to shave their heads before the start of next season.
From our West Coast correspondent Chris Thompson: "We could save time by combining hoops and foreign policy this time of year."
In such a world, the reporter might say or write, "After easy wins over Crimea and Ukraine, Russia advances to take on the Baltics," Thompson wrote in an email.
"And I've got Iran winning the Mideast bracket."
John Calipari will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at The Mall at Lexington Green at 6 p.m. April 17 to discuss and sign his new book Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out.
It's a ticketed event which means they're expecting a big crowd. Here's the link for more info: http://www.josephbeth.com/AdultEvents.aspx.
Auburn hired Bruce Pearl in his birthday week. He turned 54 on Tuesday.
During an appearance on ESPN's Mike and Mike radio/TV show, Pearl put on a football helmet.
"War Eagle, baby! War Eagle!" he yelled after putting the helmet on. "I'm baaaaaaaack!"
To Pat Riley. The former Rupp's Runt turned 69 on Thursday. ... To Mike Phillips. He turns 58 on Monday. ... To Jerry Hale. He turned 61 on Thursday. ... To Darius Miller. He turned 24 on Friday. ... To Wayne Turner. He turned 38 on Saturday. ... To Todd Bearup. He turns 47 on Tuesday. ... To EJ Floreal. He turns 21 Sunday.