UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Billy Donovan has become SECs longest-lasting UK challenger

Donovan led the Gators (24-6) to the SEC regular-season title.
Donovan led the Gators (24-6) to the SEC regular-season title. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Twice, Billy Donovan could have had the Kentucky men's basketball head coaching job.

After Tubby Smith left for Minnesota in 2007 and, again, when Billy Gillispie was terminated in 2009, the UK job was Billy D.'s for the taking.

The former assistant on Rick Pitino's first UK coaching staff opted instead to be the Adolph Rupp of Florida basketball, not the sustainer of the tradition Rupp launched at Kentucky.

In Gainesville, Donovan is in the midst of doing something no other SEC men's hoops coach has ever achieved. Still "only" 47, Donovan has the Gators enjoying an unusually protracted run as the SEC's primary hoops challenger to UK.

On Tuesday night, No. 25 Kentucky (17-6, 8-2 SEC) will visit No. 7 Florida (19-3, 9-1) with the SEC lead at stake. If the Gators win — and based on the respective performances of each team so far this season, they should — it will be Donovan's 14th career victory against UK. That will tie him with former Vanderbilt coach Roy Skinner for the fourth-most wins by an opposing coach against Kentucky.

Across many decades, no other coach or school has been able to sustain the role of Kentucky's main SEC basketball foil as Donovan and Florida.

From 1959-63, Mississippi State under Babe McCarthy won four SEC titles in five years. However, McCarthy left Starkville after the 1965 season and the Bulldogs fell back.

At Tennessee in the 1960s and '70s, showman Ray Mears fought Kentucky to a standstill, going 15-15 against the Cats and claiming the SEC crown three times.

Yet Mears never enjoyed a Final Four run — and you can't fully threaten Kentucky without a few of those. Once UT's mid-1970s stars Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld left for the NBA, the Volunteers soon fell back.

Madcap coach Dale Brown made LSU into a persistent thorn in Kentucky's side in the 1970s and '80s. Over Brown's stay in Baton Rouge, he beat the Cats 18 times, hung four SEC championship banners and made two trips to the Final Four. Yet, eventually, Brown's penchant for out-of-the-box motivational ploys seemed to grow stale and LSU fell back.

Arkansas and Nolan Richardson next came to challenge Kentucky's throne. The Razorbacks entered the SEC by claiming the conference title twice (1991-92, 1993-94) in their first three seasons. Under Richardson, Arkansas in 1994 became the first SEC school not named Kentucky to claim the men's hoops national championship.

But not even Richardson could keep Arkansas winning at a "Kentucky level," and by 2002 the Hogs and their greatest coach were going through a bitter split.

So Arkansas, too, fell back.

Which brings us to Donovan and Florida.

Since Billy D. went to Gainesville in 1996-97, his compare-and-contrast against UK is more than respectable.

In that time, Kentucky has played in eight NCAA Tournament regional finals; Florida has played in five.

UK has been to four Final Fours; Florida has played in three.

Kentucky has won two NCAA titles since the 1996-97 season; so has UF.

Head-to-head with UK, Donovan has been part of wild pendulum swings. Tubby Smith-led Kentucky teams beat Florida eight times in a row (2001-05). Buoyed by the nucleus that took Florida to the 2006 and '07 NCAA titles, Donovan then beat Kentucky seven straight.

Since Donovan's decision to take his name out of the Kentucky coaching search in 2009, leading UK to turn to John Calipari, the Cats have again taken the upper hand, winning seven of eight from the Gators.

This year, Donovan should be able to turn the tide back in his favor. At least until a stunning blowout loss at Arkansas last week and an injury that sidelined "glue guy" Will Yeguete, Florida with its veteran-stocked roster was playing like the best team in the country.

Should Florida add another NCAA title this season, Donovan would join a regal basketball list of John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (four), Mike Krzyzewski (four), Bob Knight (three) and Jim Calhoun (three) as coaches with more than two national championships.

Yet of all of Donovan's coaching accomplishments so far, one of the more impressive is this: Unlike others who rose to challenge Kentucky for SEC hoops supremacy, Florida shows no signs of permanently falling back.

Head-to-head vs. UK

How Donovan has fared against Kentucky coaches:

vs. Rick Pitino x-0-4

vs. Tubby Smith 10-12

vs. Billy Gillispie 2-2

vs. John Calipari 1-7

Overall x-13-25

x—includes two Donovan losses as head coach at Marshall

All-time wins vs. UK

Coaches with the most wins all-time against Kentucky

Record Coach Wins vs. UK vs. UK

Dale Brown 18 18-33

Ray Mears 15 15-15

Bob Knight 15 15-18

Roy Skinner 14 14-18

Dean Smith 13 13-3

Billy Donovan 13 13-25

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