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Football school has a basketball jones


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2001

GAINESVILLE -- Steve Spurrier must hustle to keep up. Sunday, as the football Swamp snoozed, the University of Florida basketball jungle screamed, dominated and celebrated.

Billy Donovan's kids, heroically rising from the late January near-dead, took another glory leap, hammering historically mighty Kentucky, earning a share of the SEC championship, lighting an early fuse to March Madness.

UF students are on spring break, but thousands hung around campus, queueing in predawn campus rain, jockeying for O'Connell Center seats, eager to be among a 12,511 sellout when the Gators demolished the Wildcats with three-point bombs, further affirming Gainesville as the hot new power base of NCAA basketball.

Football school, but hoops, too.

"In basketball atmosphere, this is now a mini Duke," said Rick Pitino, a big winner as UK coach before becoming a big NBA loser in Boston. "Nah, forget the mini. Florida is proving football and basketball can excel together at the same school.

"I told Billy he should never leave the Gators. He'll become a legendary basketball coach here. It's as good an environment as I've seen in the college game. I'm glad I'm out of the SEC and don't have to combat this."

Never, at the same time, have UF's two highest-profile sports qualified for a mass sing of We Are the Champions. Spurrier coached the Gators to SEC football joy in December; now it's the Donovan gang with a chunk of the league's basketball trophy for a second straight season.

Looking for more ...

Eleven months ago, Florida climbed its highest-ever basketball mount, reaching the NCAA championship game, wiping out North Carolina and Duke along the way, winding up No. 2 with an 89-76 loss to Michigan State. But, a few weeks later, two UF principals, sophomore Mike Miller and freshman Donnell Harvey, fled for NBA money.

"Consistent excellence is the true measure," Donovan said. "Kentucky is an extreme example, winning the SEC 41 times along with seven national championships. For real success, you must constantly challenge, expectations rising with each new group of athletes, which has also been habit at Duke and North Carolina."

Florida players talk of being the foundation of a Gainesville basketball dynasty. "That's part of what makes Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina great, having new kids show up who will work hard to be memorable parts of a lot of winning for a lot of years."

Extending its splendid basketball act of a year ago, for Florida, became immediately difficult. Conquests at rare Gator levels began to seem so long ago, so far away. After losing Miller and Harvey, health luck went sour for Donovan.

Still, there was resolve.

Examinations of character.

Who would've dared suggest, the Gator-gloomy night of Jan. 20, when Billy's injury-mangled team lost at home to Vanderbilt, tumbling to a 1-3 conference record, that Florida would reconstitute and win 11 of its next 12, leading to Sunday's gushing of happiness?

Physical breakdowns robbed the Gators of work by Teddy Dupay, Brent Wright and Justin Hamilton, but Donovan's dynamos proved to be warriors, abundant with guts. Florida hopes are fully, legitimately rekindled with SEC and NCAA tournaments ahead.

Donovan first sold himself.

"I had to be convinced that we could generate a marvelous comeback from January's doubts," the 35-year-old wizard said. "When you say things to players, they can tell if you believe it. Or if you're faking. I was sincere. They had a wonderful willingness to work. I've never seen more heart and determination in a team.

"I don't know if anybody has gone through what we have, then gone where we have. I don't know how we'll end up (in post-season fortunes), but these Gators have been harder and tougher than our squad of last season, when we sometimes would rely too much on pure talent. There's a lot more to all this than God-given skills. Today's team is as good, with a chance to be better (than last year's)."

Is he thinking No. 1?

Don't bet against it.

Pitino is job shopping, but that wasn't his Gainesville mission. He is prepping to do NCAA Tournament games for CBS-TV, plus having warm personal associations with Donovan, his onetime point guard at Providence, and UK coach Tubby Smith.

Loaded for life with NBA dollars, but hungry to again coach college basketball, Pitino is lobbying neither Wildcats nor Gators. He won a national championship with Kentucky with Donovan as a Lexington assistant.

Rick pushed UF athletics director Jeremy Foley to hire Billy, who had left Kentucky for Marshall. Pitino would soon kiss off UK for mega cash but plenty of misery with the Celtics. Smith worked two seasons on Rick's staff at UK.

"Kentucky basketball is in great hands with Tubby," he said. "Billy has created an extraordinary program at Florida. I feel deep, sincere pride in both guys. These are 10-star coaches but 11-star people."

Mini Duke?

Oh, they're getting there in the O-Center, but zealots need a few more seasons in basketball creativity class to approach the Cameron Crazies. That said, hoops is hot in Gainesville, and, except for a few problems with Florida State, the football isn't bad either.

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