An ESPN-commissioned 45-member panel “that collectively possess[es] vast college basketball experience, knowledge and perspective” has spent the last five weeks breaking down the top 50 college basketball coaches in the country. On Thursday, the panel known as ESPN Forecast listed Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan as its No. 1 coach in the nation.
Though Eamonn Brennan, writing on behalf of the panel’s decision, does not state exactly why Donovan edged out the rest of the group in a head-to-head comparison – the remainder of the top five included Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville’s Rick Pitino – a compelling case is made for how successful Donovan has been at Florida over the last five seasons.
Even though the departure of the Oh Fours and an about-face decision about leaving the Gators for the NBA were part of the reason the program missed back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2008 and 2009, UF has bounced back in a major way.
Since those two post-decision NIT seasons, Donovan hasn’t missed an NCAA tournament in five years. In the past four, his teams haven’t missed the Elite Eight. By the fourth straight trip, this spring, the Gators didn’t much feel like talking about that streak; they just wanted to move on. But it was an accomplishment in and of itself — a measure of the steady hand with which Florida basketball is led.
The most impressive thing about all this? The fact that Donovan has done it at Florida. Before Donovan, the Gators’ basketball history was almost nonexistent. In 1932-33, the Gators fielded an SEC basketball team for the first time. For the next 47 years, they finished higher than fourth in the conference standings just four times. The Gators didn’t have a full-time coach until 1960, and their only sustained success (under Norm Sloan from 1980 to 1989) led to the Gators’ first postseason berths ever, and also a major NCAA scandal.
That was five years before Donovan arrived. Now, 19 years later, Florida is one of the nation’s elite college basketball programs. It is a perennial recruiting destination, a near-constant winner. Florida is, and always will be, a football school. Attendance hasn’t always been great. But Donovan has been so relentlessly good that even the most stubbornly disinterested alum can’t help but sit up and take notice.
Not surprised @UFCoachBillyD is the #1 BBall coach. Give him any 5 players that buy into his system and they will be winners.
— Patric Young (@BigPatYoung4) July 3, 2014
A supporting ESPN Insider story ($) focused on Donovan’s recruiting efforts at Florida notes that the Gators’ coach is especially deserving of praise for having two sustained periods of success with teams that did not have similar roster constructions.
“The facts tell a story of a coach who has had two of the most successful runs college basketball has seen in recent years, albeit while building those teams in very different ways. And ultimately it is that willingness to adapt and evolve that has kept Donovan among the elite coaches, and recruiters, in the country,” explains Adam Finkelstein.
After piecing together some of the highest-ranked recruiting classes in the nation in 2007 and 2008, Donovan and Florida failed to make the tournament in consecutive seasons, causing him to “rethink his recruiting strategy, which had historically been based on collecting as much talent as possible.” Instead, Donovan realized he “needed to include other variables such as character and experience” while approaching recruiting “as analytically and systematically as he does his team’s offense and defensive execution.”
The Gators have shifted to staying home and recruiting as much in-state talent as possible while peppering its roster with the occasional out-of-state five-star talent (Bradley Beal, Devin Robinson) and filling holes with players from the ever-widening NCAA transfer market.
Those efforts led Florida to a school-best 36-3 record in the 2013-14 season capped by the program returning to the Final Four for the first time since 2007. The Gators also went undefeated in Southeastern Conference play (21-0), sweeping the league’s regular-season and tournament titles.