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Gators arrive at Final Four amid key questions

| Friday, March 30, 2007

ATLANTA - The police escort, the fans and autograph seekers roaming the hotel — all part of a Final Four welcome to Atlanta for Florida on Thursday.

Success, of course, has its price. The distracting speculation surrounding Billy Donovan's future has become the cost the Gators will pay during this, the final step in their quest for a second straight national championship.

Soon, both questions will be answered. On the court, the Gators play UCLA in the semifinals Saturday, a rematch of last year's title game. Off the court, Donovan's future — whether with Florida or at a new home in Kentucky — will soon be more clear.

The defending national champs need two more victories to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to win consecutive titles, the big reason Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah returned for another season.

"This is what we came back for," Noah said. "We came back to play in this situation. This is the big stage."

Donovan's future has taken center stage, too.

Since Tubby Smith left Kentucky to take the head job at Minnesota, speculation has grown that Donovan is at the top of the list for the Wildcats.

Florida players shrugged off talk about Donovan's future, saying they expect him to stay put.

"Anybody in their right mind knows he's probably not leaving," Brewer said. "But you never know. I don't think (he'll leave). I hope not. That would be crazy."

Donovan has spent the last 11 years in Gainesville, putting down roots with his wife and four children. His dad also lives there and coaches Donovan's oldest son's high school basketball team. The Donovans have been instrumental in getting a new Catholic high school up and running.

Oh, and he also turned a mediocre basketball program into a national power, at a place where football used to be king, defying the conventional wisdom held by his mentor, Rick Pitino, his predecessor, Lon Kruger, and dozens of other naysayers around the country.

"He made all this possible," Noah said. "Why would you want to be in a position where if you don't win a national title it's a disappointment• (Kentucky) is a great program, but you have to be realistic. The expectations there are unrealistic."

Donovan, an assistant under Pitino in Lexington, has had several opportunities over the past week to take his name out of consideration for the Kentucky job.

But all Donovan said was that the search "has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with Kentucky. I'm not in control of any their decision-making process. The only thing I'm focused on right now is our basketball team."

Donovan added Wednesday that he hoped the rumors wouldn't be a distraction in Atlanta.

"I think there's been distractions all year long for our basketball team," Donovan said. "If I were to address this right now ... My focus is on our team, our program and this great opportunity to play in the Final Four. To me, there is nothing more to address. I think I've already addressed it."

Florida fans would like more.

University of Florida president Bernie Machen offered some reassurance last week when he said, "We're not going to lose him to anybody."

Machen and athletic director Jeremy Foley have been working on a new contract for Donovan since last year. Negotiations began during Florida's title run, but Donovan postponed signing a deal worth about $2 million because he didn't want to send the wrong message to the players who turned down NBA riches to stay in school.

Donovan has two years remaining on a contract that pays him $1.7 million a season. His next contract could be worth considerably more, especially if the Gators win it all again and if Kentucky comes calling.

"I think he's fine where he is right now," Horford said. "Nobody really wants that Kentucky job. That's the way I look at it."

Whether Donovan wants the job remains to be seen. Much like Florida's shot at history, it won't be answered until after the team's final game.

"When you've got a great coach, you've got to expect it," guard Walter Hodge said. "Hopefully he'll stay."

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