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Billy Donovan's Quest to Resurrect the Florida Gators from Mediocrity—Again

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 11:  Head coach Billy Donovan of the Florida Gators gestures as he coaches against the Auburn Tigers during the first round of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bridgestone Arena on March 11, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Brad GoldbachCorrespondent IDecember 11, 2016

You can tell just by looking at Billy Donovan that he was a tough, scrappy team player who did what he had to do to get the job done. He was pretty successful at it too, dropping 20 points and seven assists per game during his senior year at Providence College that included a Final Four run under then Friars' head coach Rick Pitino.

You can also tell by looking at Donovan, that he wasn't a John Wall or Derrick Rose the kind of players who showed up on Chad Ford's mock draft a few days after they were born. Donovan is the old-fashioned, hard-nosed kind of guy who works hard to succeed.

Donovan has always carried that mentality into his career as a college hoops coach, as well. Not coincidentally, the teams that have followed Donovan's hard-nosed, team-first blueprint have succeeded.

Luckily, Donovan has been wildly successful at recruiting a group of players able to work together to this common goal for several of his signature squads.

Unfortunately, those periods of great success seem to be followed by waves of players whose sole goal is riding those coattails of success to a big money contract without any of the hard work that goes along with it.

Led by Donovan, the Florida Gators put one of the most talented teams on the court in over a decade not too long ago. But the bad apples that followed that "perfect team" (I mean this in the truest sense of the word, as there may have been more talented squads but not many that played together so flawlessly). Those bad apples completely derailed the program for several years.

At least, until now. Donovan finally seems to have cast off all of the dead weight, and gotten his program back to where it always should have been.

So how did Donovan go from the pinnacle of college basketball, to coaching a team that was the truest definition of the word "mediocre" so quickly? Let's roll back the clock.

We'll start by revisiting 2000, when Donovan truly made his mark on the coaching world. He had one of those teams that when you took a quick glance at them, you thought, "Hey, they're not too bad." When you turned back around, they were playing Michigan State for the national championship.

Sure, he had some talent on that team. All great teams do. He had Mike Miller, the future NBA Rookie of the Year. Donovan also had the likes of future draft picks Udonis Haslem, Donnell Harvey, and Matt Bonner. But he also had players like Teddy Dupay and Brett Nelson, who could hit a big three when the Gators needed it.

They were able to buy into Donovan's selfless system, and turn it into a stunning success.

Unfortunately, with Donovan's program at Florida, success seems to be followed by highly talented players who don't seem to fit the mold. 

These were the players who didn't buy into his system, and who tried to win it all by themselves. They seem to find out too late that they can't do it all by themselves and realize that attempting to fill the stat sheet not only doesn't help you win games, but it also doesn't help you get favorable looks from scouts.

The Gators brought in very talented players like Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson. They had all the talent in the world, but they were also the kind of players who would jack up a three with a guy in their face.

Sitting under the basket was the talented, but much underutilized David Lee. He was the kind of player that if you got him the ball, he would make things happen. Most people didn't realize that until he went to the New York Knicks.

The team wasn't terrible, but you knew they were not going to go very far when it mattered.

For some reason, Florida has remained a football school, and people were content with the moderate success Donovan's basketball squads had. They made the NCAA Tournament and kept things interesting, but they never reached a Sweet 16. 

Nonetheless, there was some disappointment when those guys left. Soon, the question became, 'Who was going to step up and replace them?'

People may have felt that Florida would completely drop off the basketball map without their beloved "stars." Surely, these no-names like Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, and Al Horford aren't going to do any better than who the Gators have now.

Gator fans didn't know what to expect, but they were certainly rewarded for trusting in Donovan.

This was a squad of guys that truly worked hard and loved playing with each other. They understood what Donovan was trying to say, and left a blueprint that all teams should follow, particularly in Gainesville under Donovan.

Of course, you know the rest of the story. 

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