ARLINGTON, Texas — He was “Billy the Kid” as a college player, then “Billy the Recruiter” as a young coach.
Now, with his fourth team in the Final Four and in the midst of the longest winning streak in school history, maybe Florida coach Billy Donovan should be dubbed “Billy the Builder.”
With no surefire NBA lottery picks on his roster, Donovan has done arguably his best coaching job in 18 seasons with the Gators.
Florida (36-2) has won 30 consecutive games, including four double-digit victories in the NCAA tournament, and is the odds-on favorite to win a third national championship in the past eight years. The Gators, the top overall seed in the tournament, play Connecticut today.
And unlike those first two title runs, Donovan is getting lots of credit this time.
“I think he’s one of a handful of the greatest coaches in the game,” said Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, who was voted The Associated Press’ coach of the year. “He’s got two national championships in his back pocket and he’s vying for a third. He’s been in three straight Elite Eights prior to this year, so he’s always knocking on the door.
“He does a wonderful job of procurement of talent; he’s got great players and does a great job selling the University of Florida and he coaches them well when he gets them.”
It didn’t happen overnight.
A scrappy, 3-point shooting point guard who led Providence to the 1987 Final Four, Donovan spent his first few years in Gainesville, Fla., chasing the top recruits in the country. He landed some of them, too. Mike Miller, Teddy Dupay and Donnell Harvey carried the Gators to the 2000 national title game.
Other highly touted players followed, like James White, David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Christian Drejer, but the Gators failed to win the ultimate prize.
So, Donovan changed his recruiting strategy. Of the core that made up the 2006 and 2007 title teams — Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah — only Brewer was considered a top-tier recruit. Under Donovan’s direction, they became one of the most successful teams in college basketball history. And Brewer, Horford and Noah went on to become lottery picks.
“You have some success, you try to get better players, you worry about what Kentucky’s doing, you worry about what this other team is doing, and then you start figuring out that, ‘Hey, my way isn’t so bad,’” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think he’s done it his way.
“You try to get all these McDonald’s All-American guys and sometimes they’re not the ones that get you to where you want to go. If you look at what he’s done, it’s amazing. He’s in the Final Four with mainstays.”
Donovan’s current team is composed of four senior starters who stayed in school and worked their way into starring roles.
Donovan shaped center Patric Young into one of the best defensive big men in the country. He convinced swingman Casey Prather to stop trying to be a jump-shooter and start driving to the basket. He pointed guard Scottie Wilbekin in the right direction after two suspensions in less than a year and gave him a chance to develop into the Southeastern Conference player of the year.
He has Michael Frazier II, Will Yeguete, Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, Chris Walker and DeVon Walker settled into secondary roles on a deep team with lofty expectations.
They’ve bought into “Billyball.”
“Things are very, very clear for Billy,” said Florida assistant John Pelphrey, Donovan’s right-hand man for nearly a dozen years. “He knows how he wants his team to act, how he wants them to play. That comes with age and experience. He’s developing teams and he’s gotten really good at developing teams.”
Donovan has added a few wrinkles to his coaching repertoire, too.
He has become a master motivator and a defensive guru, skills that weren’t as prevalent in those early years. Throw in a barrage of 3-pointers, a trapping press and a pick-and-roll precision, and there are plenty of reasons why Donovan has won at least 20 games for 16 consecutive seasons — at a football-first school.
“To build a program, that’s tough. But to sustain it is even tougher,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “He’s sustained it over a lot of years there at Florida.”
This one, though, might just be Donovan’s masterpiece.
“This team has won way off the charts,” Pelphrey said. “I can’t give you a reason why we’ve won this much. This team’s not that good. We don’t have the best players in the country, but they do play like it.
“Every time someone has given us a chance to win this year when we didn’t play well — and we’ve never played awful, which is a credit to our guys — we’ve been able to capitalize. And it just doesn’t happen like that. It is abnormal that we’ve been able to win like this. We all know how special it is. Maybe Billy is the best coach in the country.”