Florida Gators men's head basketball coach Billy Donovan knows what it takes to be a champion.
Even better, Donovan has dealt with the expectations of being a favorite entering the NCAA tournament, so he knows the proper buttons to push as the AP top-ranked Gators are poised for a No. 1 seed in the 2014 edition.
In an interview with Rachel Nichols that will air in its entirety on CNN's Unguarded beginning Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT, there was no indication from Donovan that Florida would be overlooking anyone:
Well, you know, it's one and done. You know, you lose a game, you're out of, you know, any of those tournaments. So I think this time a year, you wanna be playin' your best basketball. And you know, whether it's a number one ranking, you know, in the polls, or a number one ranking as it relates to seeding, you know, none [of] that stuff really makes a difference. When the ball gets thrown up in the air...everybody's gotta go out there and play, at that point in time because it all can come to an end so quickly.
Gaudy status indeed doesn't guarantee anything in March Madness, but it helps that Donovan has a senior-laden squad that has been eliminated in the Elite Eight in each of the previous three seasons.
Led by Casey Prather's 14.6 points per game and the steady hand of point guard Scottie Wilbekin, the Gators also benefit from the energy Patric Young and Will Yeguete bring to the frontcourt. That quartet has to be tired of falling just short of the Final Four, and Donovan would sure like to deliver a third national title to Gainesville in his tenure. That would add to the back-to-back championships Florida won in 2006 and 2007.
Ryan Fagan of Sporting News highlighted how successful Donovan has been at the Big Dance as of late:
Billy Donovan is 21-4 in his last six trips to the NCAA Tournament. Not a new stat, I know, but that's just incredible.— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 5, 2014
Donovan has experienced the Final Four three times as the Gators' coach, but he also made it during his playing days at Providence under current Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
When his collegiate career was over, passionate interest in coaching weighed heavily on Donovan. According to Nichols, Pitino had said to him, "Yeah, I don't think you're really cut out for it."
Nichols asked Donovan about that situation, and he shed more light on what transpired when he went to work on Wall Street after college and gravitated back toward basketball:
Yeah, he did say that. And I think one of the things, probably, in a lotta ways, when Coach Pitino said that to me was to really try to find out how eager I was to get into coaching. I took a job down on Wall Street. I wasn't very happy doing that. And I really felt like I wanted to coach. And I think with him telling me that I wasn't cut out for it, I think he probably wanted to see what kind of response I would give, you know, in return to being committed to doin' that.
A huge part of what makes a great coach at any level is getting players to buy in to the system, philosophy and overall culture. In an era where so many top college prospects are leaving school early for the NBA draft, it speaks volumes that Donovan has kept four excellent seniors in the fold, and now it's paying dividends as the Gators have risen to the top of college basketball's hierarchy.
Donovan responded when Pitino supposedly doubted him, and he's now gotten his own players to respond to his leadership to the point that they've remained at his side and aspired to maximize their collegiate eligibility.
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale alluded to Donovan's ability to communicate with warmth as a big reason for his excellence, per Arizona State associate head coach Eric Musselman:
Dick Vitale on Billy Donovan: "He has the special gift that you cannot teach: communicator. He communicates with warmth. Not with anger."— Eric Musselman (@EricPMusselman) March 4, 2014
How deep will Florida go in the NCAA tournament?
The Gators rolled through the SEC at a perfect 18-0, knocking off the freshman-heavy Kentucky Wildcats by 19 points in the regular-season finale to secure the unprecedented undefeated mark. They're on a 23-game winning streak entering the conference tournament and have the ideal blend of experience and depth to make a deep run.
Whether or not it results in a national title remains to be seen, but the job Donovan has done in retaining his seasoned seniors and translated it to wins on the court has shattered the current college basketball paradigm. A methodical rebuilding process took place after the back-to-back national titles. Now Donovan has the Gators six NCAA tournament wins away from hanging another banner in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center rafters.
As a reminder, Nichols' full interview with Donovan will air on CNN's Unguarded Friday, and the show begins at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT.