The dominion of Florida and the failures of the SEC
While the Gators reign supreme, the rest of the conference falters when it comes to basketball.
Mar. 19, 2014
ATLANTA — Class for Bill Donovan Sr. starts with the feet. In consecutive days at the Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament he wore pink socks, yellow socks and socks with purple and blue horizontal stripes, all with the same crocodile pattern, leather slip-ons.
He pulls his trousers up when he sits down, grasping just below the pockets and tugging his fingers upward, because that's what you do when a) you have serious sock game or b) you're a senior citizen transplanted from Long Island to sunny Gainesville, Fla.
"Is someone sitting here?" he asks.
Yes, someone was sitting there, but Donovan didn't notice him get up and didn't see the bulky briefcase underneath the table on which he sets his clasped hands. He was too busy palling around with nearly everyone inside the Georgia Dome.
"OK. Well when he gets back, I'll get up."
But no one is coming for Bill Donovan Sr.’s seat. Especially not after his son's Florida Gators beat up on Missouri not a half hour ago, when his grandson got to dribble out the clock. Now South Carolina is playing Tennessee and the elder Donovan wants to stick around and watch, chatting up UF assistant John Pelphrey.
"You're looking at the brains of the Florida Gators," he says, shoving Pelphrey's shoulder. He seems to be forgetting someone.
It wasn't Pelphrey who led Florida to back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007. It wasn't Pelphrey who led the Gators to 55-straight regular season conference wins. It wasn't who Pelphrey led the Gators on a 26-game win streak in 2013-14.
Billy Donovan Jr. did.
"He better," Bill Sr. says. "I'm the dad."
Yes, we know. The Donovans, junior and senior, are the only two people in the arena with New York accents. They have the same hairlines. They have the same idiosyncrasies.
A day later when the Volunteers make a run to knock off Florida in the tournament semifinals, father and son Donovan are about the only people who can keep their composure in the Georgia Dome.
"Never in doubt," Bill Sr. says about the game's result: a 56-49 Gator win.
His vantage point is unique when Florida makes a deciding run moments after UT forward Jeronne Maymon hacks UF center Patric Young, then picks up a technical foul.
"That's a four-point swing," he says. "Listen, I thank God for it." So much for never in doubt.
And after the Gators held Kentucky to 35 percent shooting a day later to capture the SEC Tournament championship, Florida's top overall seed in the NCAA tournament was never in doubt.
The same can't be said for the rest of the conference. Other than Florida, only Kentucky and Tennessee landed dates to the big dance. The Volunteers were even forced into a play-in game to qualify for the No. 11 seed in the Midwest region.
Missouri, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Georgia (even Louisiana State and Texas A&M) had ample chances to lock up NCAA berths. All faltered and even in the face of certain defeat, stuck to their guns. They had a chance, they said. A desperate, fleeting chance.
"I know we weren't good enough in November," UGA coach Mark Fox said. "If you were to take a hard look at it, we might be good enough now."
"Look at the history of Ole Miss," Rebels coach Andy Kennedy said. "You go .500 in your league, in a major league, you're in. That's changed. That's gone forever."
"We're in the hunt for something," a far more pragmatic Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "I don't know what. Postseason play, that's what we aim for this season."
Bill Sr. knows the landscape of the SEC, of all of college basketball. He's the third leading scorer in the history of Boston College, when the Eagles played in the Big East. He watched his son, Billy Jr., play for Providence and legendary coach Rick Pitino in the conference's heyday.
"When they were good," Bill Sr. says of the Big East, "they were good."
He watched his son coach as an assistant at Kentucky, then take his first head coaching job at Marshall (Conference USA) and finally jump to Florida in 1996, where he's been ever since.
Nearly two decades later, Florida is the class of the SEC and maybe the class of college basketball. It's all under the scaffolding set up by Billy Donovan Jr. and his dad is along for the ride.
He perches on the end of the Gators’ bench and small-talks officials during timeouts. It's not quite a bird's eye view, but it's a good enough spot to see the ebbs and flows of the NCAA's best teams.
The Gators have made three straight elite eights. They posted the first perfect major-conference record for the first time since 1976.
They present the ultimate paradox for NCAA aficionados: how does one of the greatest programs in modern college basketball come from one of the worst conferences?
"It's not what it used to be," Bill Sr. says. "They got the players, but look at nonconference play."
Georgia went 6-6 out of conference with consecutive losses to Davidson, Temple and Nebraska. Ole Miss fell to Mercer at home early in the year, then dropped of their last eight regular season games.
Florida, meanwhile, fought then-No. 12 Connecticut and then-No. 20 Wisconsin to the buzzer in two road games — the Gators' only two losses of the year — and took care of then-No. 13 Kansas and then-No. 15 Memphis.
"We have kind of spread ourselves out as it relates to playing other BCS conferences into the high major conferences," the younger Donovan said.
Tennessee beat current No. 3 Virginia and Big East contender Xavier. Kentucky took down NCAA selection Providence on a neutral floor and cross-state rival No. 5 Louisville.
The rest of the SEC doesn't offer much backup, especially when the bottom five teams (Vanderbilt, Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State) are a combined 20 games under .500.
Missouri fell to two of those squads: Vanderbilt and Alabama. Those losses may have spoiled the Tigers’ chances at a sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
But junior guard Jordan Clarkson says that’s what makes the conference tough: any team can win on any night. The SEC’s hierarchy is fluid at best.
“You really don’t know which teams are gonna be the top four teams in the conference,” Clarkson said. “I think that’s the sign of a good conference, playing against other good teams. Maybe some of us are just a little slept on.”
Bill Donovan Sr. sees something else. After all, the dominion of Florida runs basketball in the South. No longer is Kentucky the lone basketball blue blood of the region.
He’s sitting the Georgia Dome’s pressroom after his son has accepted the mantle of conference champion from SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. He whips out his phone and starts checking scores from across the country, but it vibrates too much with messages from friends and family to look at the Big 10 and Atlantic Coast Conference.
Instead he starts asking for scores around the pressroom. “Did Virginia win? What about Michigan? Michigan State?”
He laughs out loud after reading a couple text messages. “My buddy sends me a text. Here, he says, ‘Never worry,’” he reads aloud and flashes the screen of his iPhone around the room.
Florida beat the Wildcats on a last-second defensive stop, the Gators’ calling card. “Never in doubt,” he says laughing, grabbing the sleeve of the guy sitting next to him. “Never in doubt.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t need another look at the conference to deem the SEC’s top six teams worthy of NCAA tournament bids.
“Georgia should be in, Tennessee should be in, Arkansas should be on the edge,” he said. “I mean, they beat us twice. For some reason, it doesn't get the credit it should.”
Well, neither Georgia nor Arkansas made the tournament. The SEC got three bids. The depleted Big East, raided by the ACC during conference realignment got more. The 1-year-old American Athletic Conference, the remnants of teams that seceded from the Big East, got more.
“It is disappointing because I think our league is better than it is perceived to be and that’s unfortunate that we don’t get the kind of respect as some other leagues,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “Even when I saw the seeding of our teams, Tennessee and Kentucky, that was disappointing too.”
The mighty Big 12, Mizzou’s old stomping ground, drew seven bids, the most of any league. The ACC, the year in and year out consensus basketball power in the nation, drew five bids.
But the tides of college basketball aren’t changing, Donovan Sr. says. The ACC sucked Syracuse and Pittsburgh off the decaying Big East. It will pick up reigning national champion Louisville from the AAC next year.
“There are gonna be some years when they’re gonna but eight, nine teams in the tournament,” he said. “And the Big 12, they’re gonna slug somebody.”
Yet Florida still flies above the fray. Above conference realignment, above the pinball machine that is the trajectory of SEC basketball.
In an era of college hoops devoid of seniors, the Gators start four of them. As basketball trends toward building blocks of superstars and one-and-done recruits, Florida doesn’t boast a single star player.
“Our guys have had to rely on each other,” Billy Jr. says. “We have tried to sell ball movement, player movement and being unselfish and making the extra pass. I don't know how we necessarily do it, but I mean that's what we do.”
Point guard Scottie Wilbekin earned conference player of the year honors mainly for his leadership and defensive intensity.
“What a great team,” Calipari said. “What a great story. What a great coaching job. You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that.”
It’s an honor because the Gators keep playing college basketball as it was meant to be played, Bill Sr. says, with crisp ball movement, impeccable discipline, staunch defense, hard nosed rebounding.
He nods in approval as his son imparts wisdom on turning Gainesville, a football-crazed city of 126,000-some in northern central Florida, a basketball oasis.
“Southeastern passion is football,” the younger Donovan says. “That's what it is. And it's difficult when you're recruiting sometimes to explain to kids that there is a commitment here at Florida. They do want to win.
“I think the next step for the program was, can you do it on a consistent basis over a long period of time?”
Donovan Jr. and the Gators have answered the bell time and time again. It’s the reason why they drew the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Donovan Sr. texts his wife as the selection show airs on CBS in the pressroom.
“Woo! That’s a tough bracket,” he says, grabbing the chairs around him as if he’s being blown back by a gust of wind. “Kansas the two! Syracuse the three! UCLA the four!” The teams keep coming. “VCU the five!”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know about this. They want to test us.”
And why wouldn’t they? Why not use Florida, the nation’s best team from the worst conference, as a litmus test for the legitimacy of the SEC?
“Never worry,” he says, glaring at his phone. Finally it has stopped buzzing.
“Well done, Mr. Donovan,” Slive says in passing.
Bill Donovan Sr. is almost done shaking hands. His inerasable smile is not quite as wide as when his son cut down the Georgia Dome’s nets. “Good luck,” someone yells out, as he leaves the pressroom en route for the owner’s club upstairs.
He sticks his hand back through the doorway and waves. “We’ll need it,” he says.