Harris: Florida's Donovan eyes another NCAA run
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Florida's Billy Donovan is one of three active men's college basketball coaches to win two national championships since 2000 (joining Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams), and he's confident enough to try for a third.
Donovan, among the nation's most underrated coaches, credits his players for the Gators' 12 NCAA Tournament appearances in his first 16 seasons.
This season, No. 8 Florida has overcome injuries and the departure of Bradley Beal — the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft — to emerge as the best and most consistent team in the Southeastern Conference.
“I like these guys a lot,” Donovan said during his weekly conference call. “It's been a really good group to coach. They work hard. They've got a good attitude. They're unselfish. Winning is important to them. They want to improve. Up to this point, I really have enjoyed being around them.”
Donovan could change his mind if the Gators produce many more performances reminiscent of Tuesday's 64-58 loss at Tennessee.
Florida was outrebounded, 41-31, shot 37.9 percent in the second half and was credited with only 11 assists. Senior guard Kenny Boynton, the Gators' career leader in games played and an All-SEC selection last season, scored two points on 1-of-7 shooting.
Injuries forced Donovan to limit playing time to six players, five of whom played 30 or more minutes against Tennessee.
“We've had to battle the injury bug. We've had different guys step up in different situations, but we don't have any excuses,” Donovan said. “When we line up to play, we play.”
Donovan expects to have his full complement of players for the SEC Tournament.
Florida has won three SEC championships under Donovan. Last season, the Gators lost to eventual national champion Kentucky in the semifinals of the conference tournament but rebounded to advance to the West Regional final against Louisville.
A 72-68 loss to the Cardinals to finish one game short of what would have been Donovan's fourth Final Four appearance gave Florida new motivation for this season — particularly after losing to Butler in overtime a year earlier in another regional final.
“I think because the last two years we've been right there for the Final Four and come up a little bit short, the normal tendency would be to say this is the year we're going to break through,” Donovan said. “That is probably the worst kind of mentality we can have. There's a process you have to go through as a basketball team of dealing with ups and downs and struggles and challenges.
“Although last year was a successful year and we were right there on the cusp of getting to the Final Four, we've got to be willing as players and coaches to start all the way back down at the bottom of the mountain and be committed to making the journey back up the mountain again. You can play really, really well and still come up short. I thought the two games we lost to Butler and Louisville they made more plays and better plays than we did.”
By Minnesota's standards, coach Tubby Smith has done a wonderful job. The Gophers are on the verge of their third NCAA Tournament berth in Smith's six seasons following a 77-73 upset of No. 1 Indiana.
The Gophers' 19th win this season was not only their most significant, but it also marked the approach of Smith's fifth 20-win season at the school.
Smith, however, coaches by a different set of standards.
The win against Indiana followed a run of eight losses in Minnesota's 11 previous games, including five straight with the Gophers scoring fewer than 58 points.
Smith, whose first 21 seasons produced only three years with fewer than 20 wins, brought in a sports psychologist to speak to his players.
“We have a lot to improve on,” he said.
If the win over the top-ranked team in the country is any indication, Smith has quietly made the Gophers respectable again.
Around the country
Virginia Tech senior guard Erick Green is on pace to become the first Atlantic Coast Conference player to lead the nation in scoring since South Carolina's Grady Wallace did it in 1957. Green entered last week's games averaging 25.2 points and had scored at least 20 points in 25 of his first 27 contests. Purdue's Glenn Robinson in 1994 was the last player from a major college to lead Division I in scoring. ... Utah State athletic trainer Mike Williams was honored by the Utah legislature for saving the life of player Danny Berger after Berger collapsed during practice Dec. 4. Williams also was awarded the Heartsaver Hero Award by the American Heart Association when he used an automated external defibrillator (AED) and performed CPR on Berger, who had a pacemaker inserted in his chest and continues his recovery. ... Marquette's Davante Gardner is the first player in 17 years to come off the bench and shoot at least 7 for 7 from the floor and at least 90 percent from the foul line (12 of 13). Gardner scored a career-high 26 points in a win over Syracuse on Monday. ... Sacred Heart's Shane Gibson scored 30 points against Bryant on Monday to become one of nine active NCAA players with 2,000 career points. He is the fifth Northeast Conference player to reach the milestone. ... For the first time, the Big Ten Tournament has sold out in advance. The tournament started in 1998 and will be played at Chicago's United Center (March 14-17) for the first time since 2007.
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.
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