MEMPHIS, TENN. | Billy Donovan and Steve Alford were two of the top guards in the 1987 college basketball season and almost played against each other in the NCAA Tournament national championship game.
And despite being among the most senior coaches in the nation, with a combined 1,406 games, they’ve never met in that capacity, either.
It took 27 years, but Donovan and Alford will finally compete in the same basketball game in the NCAA Tournament South Region semifinals.
Donovan, the coach of the top-seeded Florida Gators (34-2), and Alford, in his first season guiding UCLA (28-8), will send their teams onto the court at the FedEx Forum about 9:45 p.m. Thursday, following the other semifinal game between Dayton (25-10) and Stanford (23-12). The winners of those two games play on Saturday for the right to move on to the Final Four in Dallas next week.
The 1987 college basketball season was a good one for guards, and the two coaches in the Florida-UCLA game might have been the best from the outside.
“He had an unbelievable year,” Donovan said Wednesday of Alford’s senior season in 1987 at Indiana. “I always had great respect for him as a player,” the Florida coach said during a news conference at the FedEx Forum.
Likewise, Alford found a lot to admire about Donovan’s season with Providence.
“Just a fierce competitor,” Alford said. “Very skilled, very talented guard, high basketball IQ as a player and kind of emulates that now as a coach.”
The Gators vs. Bruins game is intriguing on several levels, not the least of which is the matchup of two coaches who played at blue-blood basketball schools, for legendary coaches.
Donovan, known as “Billy the Kid” at Providence while playing for Rick Pitino, scored 20.6 points per game in leading the Friars to an improbable run to the Final Four at the Louisiana Superdome. Alford, who carried the crushing pressure of being an Indiana “Mr. Basketball” and playing for the bombastic Bob Knight, scored 22.0 points per game that season and led the Hoosiers to the national championship game, where they beat Syracuse.
Providence was knocked out of the tournament two days before by fellow Big East member Syracuse.
Donovan has reversed that as a coach, winning two national championships and reaching three Final Fours, while Alford has failed to get to the Elite Eight and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen only once, in 1999 with Missouri State.
Donovan also has stayed at Florida for 18 years and recently received a contract extension that will keep him at UF for six more.
Alford has been a bit of a vagabond, parlaying his final season with Missouri State into the Iowa job, stayed there for eight years (and three NCAA appearances for a combined 1-3 record), went to New Mexico where he won 22 or more games all six years, and then jumped at the chance to go to UCLA.
Another difference is that Donovan found great success at a heretofore football school. Alford had nothing to build at UCLA in terms of tradition, but it’s the legacy left by John Wooden that will keep the pressure on.
“When you’re at UCLA, that expectation is high,” Alford said. “Regardless of whether it’s your first year, your 10th year, whatever it is, you start each season trying to win a national championship.”
History lessons and backgrounds aside, the here and now is that the Florida and UCLA should be a test of wills: Can Florida’s staunch defense put the brakes on the Bruins’ versatile, fast-paced offense?
The key matchup will be whether Gators’ point guard Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year, can stay with the Bruins’ Kyle Anderson, a 6-9 point guard with a 7-3 wingspan, according to Alford.
Anderson averages 14.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game.
Wilbekin admitted he may need help from his teammates, especially big men Patric Young of Jacksonville and Will Yeguete.
“[Anderson] is definitely a unique cover,” Wilbekin said. “We’re just going to try to keep him out of the lane, not let him get a step because he obviously has great length. We just have to build walls, help each other.”
Anderson said Wilbekin was the best player in the SEC for a reason.
“He’s a very good on-the-ball defender, as I’ve been watching on film and watching him play all year,” he said. “He’s the SEC player of the year. He’s a senior. He’s been here before.”
And a lot will come down to the coaching battle, as Billy the Kid and Mr. Basketball finally meet.
Garry Smits: (904) 359-4362