Sunday, December 1, 2013

Billy Donovan: To Some, He'll Always Be Billy the Kid

Maybe you have to be from a certain time and place (say, Rhode Island in 1987) to fully appreciate Billy Donovan.

He hasn't always been the Rick Pitino clone with the slicked-back hair and New York accent who's patrolled the Florida sidelines for the past 18 seasons (wow, it's been that long). Once upon a time, he was the angelic, droopy-socked, Irish-Catholic point guard who played for Pitino on the 1987 PC Friars -- sort of Rhode Island's version of the Dream Team three years beforehand.

He was Billy the Kid.

Led by Donovan, Delray Brooks and Ernie "Pop" Lewis (they called them the Rainbow Coalition), Pitino and the Friars brilliantly exploited the new 3-point shot all the way to the Final Four, where their dream run was eventually snuffed by Syracuse.

Songs were written in their honor ("The PC Rap Attack" ... I'm serious), and they captured the small state's imagination like no other Friar team had since Ernie D. and Marvin Barnes led them to the Final Four in 1973, and certainly no team since.

Donovan, of course, was the team's leader, it's heart-and-soul. I'm not sure there's a great comparison to him on UConn's 1990 Dream Team (Chris Smith? Nadav Henefeld? Tate George?). The better comparison might be to Steve Alford, who led Indiana to the national title over Syracuse that year. But Alford, though worshiped eternally by Hoosier fans, never went from a pudgy freshman at the end of the bench to one of the best players in college hoops as a senior, the way Billy the Kid did.

I was a junior at Barrington (R.I.) High School that year, and it remains among my fondest memories of college hoops: Donovan's yeoman's effort in an overtime win over Austin Peay; Lewis's game-winning trey in a regular-season win over Georgetown at the Civic Center (before it was The Dunk); Pitino and John Thompson nearly coming to blows on the sidelines (I think I know who'd win that one); Mary Conlon's head fakes ... I could go on and on.

Pitino utilized the run to skip out of town that summer, after just two seasons at PC, to take the Knicks' job (about a week after I attended his basketball camp). I remember he picked up Donovan at some point in his first year at the helm, but Billy the Kid's game didn't translate to the NBA and he lasted only a handful of games.

He'd soon become an assistant under Pitino at Kentucky, take over at Marshall in 1994, then at Florida two years later. He won consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007, surpassing Pitino's national-title count at the time (though Slick Rick tied him up last season).

On Monday night, Donovan leads Florida into Gampel for what promises to be an electric atmosphere in a battle between two top-15 teams. He's now a 48-year-old, wizened veteran of 20 (!) collegiate head coaching seasons.

But to some, he'll always be Billy the Kid.

A few more tidbits from Sunday's practice:

*** DeAndre Daniels went down hard near the end of practice after apparently being hit in the jaw. He was down on the floor for a few minutes as trainer James Doran tended to him, but eventually got up and finished out practice. Afterwards, he was in the training room getting work on his back, which has also been bothering him.

*** Kevin Ollie on Florida:

“Great team, great opportunity for us. It’s a ranked team, and it’s in our house. We want to protect our house, we want to build on what we’ve already created, and just keep playing good basketball.”

“We’ve got to keep them out of the paint, make them take contested 2’s and 3’s, challenge them on rebounds and we’re going to fast break on them.”

(on senior forward Casey Prather, who's averaging 19.1 ppg)

“He’s just a super athlete, he gets a lot off of transition, cutting off the basket. He’s just a slasher, he gets to the paint, but he gets there with force and authority. He’s not just going there to make a play, he’s going there to embarrass people.”

Ollie noted that Lasan Kromah should see plenty of time guarding 6-4 guard Michael Frazier II, who's scoring at a 14.4 clip.

*** Here's Donovan talking about UConn with the Florida media contingent. Sounds like Kasey Hill and DeVon Walker, both of whom were out of Friday's win over Florida State due to injury, may not be available Monday night, either.

(on UConn's three practices since the Thanksgiving break)

“We worked the turkey out of them, the stuffing out of them. It was good."

Ollie on Omar Calhoun, who's shooting just 6-for-26 from the floor and 2-for-13 on 3's the last four games:

“Gotta make his teammates better. Don’t concentrate on your shooting, you make your teammates better. It’s funny, when you try to make your teammates better, everything works out for you. I’m not a shooting guru ... be ready to shoot, be positive, be confident, but don’t get bogged (down) that you’ve got to shoot to be on the court. You’ve got to play defense, rebound and help your teammates be better.”

*** Ollie was a junior on the last (and only other) UConn team to face Florida: the 1994 team that lost to the Gators in the East Regional semifinals in Miami, 69-60 in overtime. Donyell Marshall missed a pair of free throws that would have won it in regulation for the Huskies, but he missed both.

“We thought Donyell would make one free throw," said Ollie. "He didn’t make it, they took it to us. It happens … It wasn’t Donyell’s fault, we had many plays before that, and it happened to end up in his hands like that. We’re fine, me and Donyell are cool, we keep moving on, Coach won three national championships. All is well in UConn land.”

*** Ollie on Donovan:

“We haven’t taken each other out to dinner or anything, but I see him, I say hi. I recognize he’s a great coach. It’s hard to do this job. I respect every coach that’s doing it … Especially a guy that wins national championships and is going to be a Hall of Fame coach. You want to respect him, definitely. I’d love to spend more time with him, if possible. But in the recruiting wars, you don’t get that opportunity all the time. I respect him, and I respect how hard his team plays. That’s the sign of a good coach.”

*** on UConn's home-and-home with the Gators, which will take them to Gainesville next season:

“I know they’re going to be strong, it’s stood the test of time. I know they’re going to be good next year. It’s just good for us to have these kind of opponents on our schedule. Especially to go down there, play in front of a hostile crowd, try to get a win. It’s just a great opportunity. Hopefully, we can win this game, go back down there and try to win next year. This year, we’ve got to take care of business here. It’s just a great venue, I love this place. It’s gonna be loud, it’s gonna be packed, and it’s gonna be a nice experience for our guys.”

*** Ryan Boatright on the Gators:

“They’re a great team. They’ve got a beast in the middle in Patric Young, they’ve got good guards, they’re long, they’re athletic. They slipped up and lost that one game, but other than that, they’d be a top 10 team.”

“It’s gonna be crazy. If anybody has seen a ranked game in Gampel, it’s ridiculous. The students have been waiting for a game like this at Gampel. It’s gonna be exciting, man. It’s gonna be fun.”

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