Kentucky Talk Shadows Florida's Donovan

Friday, March 30th 2007, 5:07 pm
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ The question came out of the stands, as direct and on-target as a Lee Humphrey jumper.

``Hey, Jeremy, is Billy going to Kentucky?'' the fan yelled at the Florida athletic director, Jeremy Foley.

``Yeah, sure,'' Foley replied. ``He's got his bags packed there in the back.''


If only it were a laughing matter.

Florida coach Billy Donovan's future is the subject of intense speculation at this Final Four, a topic as interesting to many basketball fans as the UCLA-Florida semifinal Saturday that's a rematch of Florida's win in the final last year.

For the record, Donovan used Friday's interview session to once again deny he's thinking about any of it.

``The minute I get on the road, I give my phone to my secretary,'' Donovan said, parroting a quote he's given since the speculation began. ``I've talked to nobody. All I've done, to be honest with you, is I got a lot of bloodshot eyes right now from watching a lot of tape. That's all I do.''

No one can deny he's the hottest commodity in the business right now.

It's easy to see why.

Eleven years ago, Donovan took over a program that nobody thought could win consistently. He guided it to the national finals in 2000, a championship last year and, in maybe his best coaching coup yet, has the Gators (33-5) within two wins of another title despite a huge target on the team's back wherever it went.

These days, the whole idea of leaving Florida for Kentucky doesn't seem like the slam dunk it would have been only a few years back.

``I love the University of Florida,'' Donovan said. ``I love my experiences. I love everything about it. I love coaching my team. I love my administration. It's been great. I mean, I'm very, very happy here right now.''

Of course, ``right now'' in the coaching business is exactly that. Next week could be different. After all, Tubby Smith said after Kentucky was ousted from the tournament that he expected to be back next year; a few days later, he was gone to Minnesota.

The man Donovan is coaching against, Ben Howland, knows what that's like.

He resurrected Pittsburgh from nothingness to a perennial tournament team. He hated leaving Pitt and all the relationships he'd built with the players, the community, the fans. But UCLA (30-5) was his dream job.

``There's no way I could pass it up,'' the southern California native said of the job offer he got four years ago. ``I would have been very happy to have stayed at Pitt the rest of my coaching career had it not worked out. I loved the people there.''

The solace he took was that he knew he left the program on ``very solid ground,'' and left his job to longtime assistant and friend Jamie Dixon.

``I'm very, very proud to have been a part of helping that,'' Howland said.

If Donovan leaves next week for the more storied Wildcat program _ maybe not his dream job, but certainly in his mind ever since he worked as Rick Pitino's assistant in Lexington _ he could say the exact same thing about his time with the Gators.

This was a program that languished for decades under the shadows of scandal, Steve Spurrier and a general sense of disinterest on campus.

Now, basketball shares the spotlight with Urban Meyer's championship football team at the school with the most successful athletic program in the country.

The mere fact that Florida's coach is in demand shows how far hoops have come in Gainesville.

``I don't think about stuff like that,'' Foley said. ``Is it a surprise he's successful? Is it a surprise he's a national championship coach? That's not a surprise to me at all.''

Donovan's next _ or last _ act at Florida will depend mainly on the five starters he's coached the last two years.

There's Humphrey, the 3-point specialist, who keyed Florida's win over George Mason in the semifinals last year, making three straight 3s to start the second half and put the game out of reach.

There's Corey Brewer, who shut down UCLA's Arron Afflalo during the final, leaving Afflalo humbled as he watched the other team soak in the confetti that could have been for him.

``It's just a little different to watch other people celebrate against you,'' Afflalo said. ``It brings about some different feelings.''

There's Joakim Noah, arguably the biggest star on the Gators and the focal point of every opponent's defense.

Taurean Green and Al Horford round out the lineup that will have to stop Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata and Josh Shipp, who was injured last year but averages 13 points a game this season. Some think Shipp is the X-factor, the biggest difference between UCLA of '06 and '07.

As Donovan prepares for UCLA, his players insist the coach hasn't said a word about Kentucky.

``He really hasn't addressed it to us because we don't think it's a concern,'' reserve forward Chris Richard said. ``If it came down to it, he'd probably talk about it after the season is over. We don't really see that happening.''

And Donovan insists he's so focused on UCLA that the questions about Kentucky don't even bother him.

``You're just doing your jobs,'' he said. ``And I've got to do mine, too.''