MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Somewhere up there in hoops heaven, after the Florida Gators once again defeated his former program in the NCAA Sweet 16 Thursday night, the late great John Wooden must have looked down in bewilderment at the alternative basketball universe that Billy Donovan has created in Gainesville.
Who would have ever thought the Florida Gators would have a basketball program that would overshadow its football program and then deliver another galling 79-68 defeat to a UCLA team whose football program has overshadowed its basketball program?
Who would have ever thought that the major story line going into Thursday night’s game would be whether UCLA — the program with a storied basketball history — could overcome the recent history of losing game after game against Donovan’s Gators in the NCAA Tournament?
As someone who was a kid growing up in Florida when Wooden was dominant and college basketball in this state was dormant, it was surreal to hear first-year UCLA coach Steve Alford talking about how he hoped to someday build a program at UCLA like Donovan has built at UF.
“To be somewhere 18 years and put your culture in right from the beginning at a university that had not had nearly the success in the past ... I have the utmost respect for Billy,” said Alford, who watched his program fall to 0-4 against UF in NCAA Tournament play. “He’s put his stamp on that program and (built it) into one of the premier basketball programs in the country.”
Translation: Wooden — the legendary Wizard of Westwood — may need to prepare another wing in his pantheon of college basketball coaching greatness and make room for Donovan — the iconic Guru of Gainesville.
The victory over UCLA Thursday extended the Gators’ school-record winning streak to 29 games and advanced them to a fourth straight regional final. And they did it just as you would expect them to: By smothering UCLA beneath a suffocating blanket of badgering defense and riding the blistering 3-point shooting of Michael Frazier (19 points, 5-of-8 from beyond the arc).
With Patric Young and Casey Prather both in foul trouble and star point guard Scottie Wilbekin struggling, the Gators still somehow managed to get it done.
With Wilbekin heating up late and Florida’s defense holding high-scoring UCLA to 14 points below their season average, this victory was a textbook case of what Donovan has turned Florida basketball into — an elite program built with grit, guts, toughness and tenaciousness.
I’ve ruffled some feathers in the past by claiming Donovan is already the greatest college coach in this state’s history — either football or basketball — because he has done something nobody else has ever done in this basketball-bereft state.
There have been eight different college football coaches in Florida who combined have won 11 national titles — Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Larry Coker and Jimbo Fisher.
How hard can it be in this state to win a national championship in football when mediocre coaches such as Coker won one and Erickson won two?
But only Donovan has ever won a basketball national championship. And he’s not just won one; he’s won two — and played for another. He’s also made countless NCAA Tournament appearances and came into this season as the only active coach who had led his team to three consecutive Elite 8s.
Obviously, Donovan’s credentials still pale when compared to the immortal Wooden, who won an unprecedented 10 national titles at UCLA, including an amazing seven in a row at one point. Those marks will never be matched because, quite frankly, college basketball has changed so dramatically since Wooden coached.
With all due respect to Wooden, college basketball wasn’t nearly as competitive back in his day. Most schools (see entire Southeastern Conference except Kentucky) didn’t even bother to compete at the upper echelon of college basketball. Prior to 1960, for instance, the University of Florida never even had a full-time basketball coach. Back in those days, the Gators’ head basketball coach always doubled as an assistant football coach.
In today’s high-profile world of March Madness, the NCAA Tournament has expanded to nearly three times the number of teams it had during the Wooden era and there are literally hundreds of schools who are spending big money in hopes of becoming major players in college basketball.
Who would have ever thought Billy Donovan would put the Florida Gators right near the top of John Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success”?