Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Forde [Print without images]

Friday, March 23, 2007
Updated: March 24, 5:15 PM ET
Florida advances amidst coaching speculation

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- The game itself was pretty good: Gulliver-sized Florida 65, Lilliputian Butler 57. The Gators survive and advance, but hardly with shock and awe.

Billy Donovan
Billy Donovan didn't dismiss rumors of his interest in the Kentucky vacancy.
The game after the game was really good. That's when Florida coach Billy Donovan rhetorically batted his eyes in the direction of Lexington, Ky.

Asked about being mentioned as a candidate for the suddenly vacant Kentucky coaching position, Donovan delivered an answer that did nothing to squelch the speculation. Delivered it once on the podium in the postgame news conference, and delivered it again just inside the Florida locker room.

Podium version: "That has nothing to do with me; it has everything to do with Kentucky. I'm not in control of their decision-making process. The only thing I'm focused on right now is our basketball team and trying to coach them and enjoy every moment with them because it's such a fun group.

"I cannot control different things that are out there. And it's not my place to say anything or do anything, because that is someone else's decision. … It's got nothing to do with me at all."

This arched a few eyebrows because of what Donovan did not say. Which is, namely, "I am not a candidate." That is something he can control, and Billy The Kid is plenty smart enough to know it.

So in the locker room, I mentioned this to Donovan. And he again declined to kill the story in its tracks.

"First of all, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on anything like that," Donovan said. "That is not my place at all.

"There's people there at the University of Kentucky who have been hired to do a job. That's their thing. There's going to be speculation and people are going to talk about that stuff, but I can't control that.

"I love being here. I love coaching these teams. We've got an opportunity to go to the Final Four Sunday, and that's all my focus."

There's going to be speculation and people are going to talk about that stuff, but I can't control that. I love being here. I love coaching these teams. We've got an opportunity to go to the Final Four Sunday, and that's all my focus.
Billy Donovan

That's not exactly the same as throwing kerosene on a fire, but it sure isn't a bucket of cold water, either.

So what was Donovan doing here Friday night? Playing the Pay Me card or subtly announcing a sincere interest in coaching the Wildcats?

My guess would be the former. The man holds every chip in the casino.

Donovan has two years left on a deal that pays him $1.7 million annually at Florida -- less, on average, than football coach Urban Meyer. Kentucky was paying Tubby Smith in excess of $2 million -- and would theoretically be ready to pay more than that for the national championship coach whose team has beaten the Wildcats six straight times.

So we could be heading for the Mother Of All Bidding Wars. Because Kentucky would seem ready, willing and very able to pay a king's ransom for the best basketball coach it could get, and Florida has almost as much money as Microsoft. Bring on the auctioneer.

Winner? Billy Donovan.

Why not hear what Kentucky has to offer, then see what Florida says in return? Nobody in America could blame Donovan for doing that. Especially since he's not going Nick Saban on us and lying to our faces.

While this will have the message boards blazing in both camps, it hasn't moved the needle much in the Florida locker room.

"We don't pay any attention to that," guard Taurean Green said. "We just sort of laugh. We're not going to let that break up our team."

Coaching speculation isn't going to break up the Gators, but the state of Indiana almost did. First it was Purdue in the second round, pushing Florida into the final minutes before relenting. Then Friday night it was Butler in the Sweet 16, leading by a point with 3½ minutes remaining before submitting.

The one-play metaphor for this game came roughly a minute later, with the game tied. Gators center Al Horford got the ball on the left wing, with Butler's Brandon Crone attempting to defend.

The 6-foot-10, 245-pound Horford put the ball on the floor and turned his back on the 6-6, 225-pound Crone. Horford said he was thinking of passing the ball out to the perimeter when teammate Corey Brewer vetoed that idea.

"Corey was kind of signaling to me, 'Go score, go score,' " Horford said.

Taurean Green
Florida's Joakim Noah, right, and Taurean Green are focused on defending their title -- by any means necessary.
To Brewer, this was a simple matter of natural selection. The strong devour the weak.

"I saw the guy guarding him was about 6-5," Brewer explained. "I thought in my head, 'What's the use of kicking it out when you can score any time you want to?' "

Indeed.

So Horford backed Crone down, battering him with his backside until he was within layup range. Finally, desperate to stop the erosion of his defensive position, Crone reached in to slap the ball away, got arm instead, and Horford scored -- plus forced the fifth foul on the Butler senior.

Crone was out. School was, too. The Florida run was 11-3 to the final gun.

This was a mismatch of size and athleticism that never became a mismatch on the scoreboard.

Florida displayed its stunning versatility by having the 6-9 Brewer, 6-10 Horford and 6-11 Joakim Noah do extensive work chasing Butler's guards on the perimeter.

"When you have those guys out there and you say, 'OK, you're going to guard a guy who's 6-foot tonight,' it's a pretty big luxury," Donovan said.

But the luxury tax has come in the way of occasionally wayward focus and intensity. The Gators were somehow out-rebounded by eight in the second half. And their six-point halftime lead evaporated after starting out airball-turnover-turnover-miss-miss-turnover.

But when it was crunch time and the Edward Jones Dome crowd was sensing a miracle in the air, the Gators finally exerted themselves against a cagey team that plays a problematic style and refused to wilt. And as the defending champs are finding out, nobody is wilting these days.

Last year Florida sprinted through the field, winning five of six games by blowout margins. This year it's been a pair of pitched battles and even 20 minutes of spunk from No. 16 seed Jackson State.

To this point, the Gators are doing a stellar imitation of the 1995 Arkansas Razorbacks: defending national champs with a flush returning roster who labored to make their way through the tournament to the Final Four.

Those Hogs won their first four NCAA games by a total of 15 points, then reached the final game and were surprisingly punked by UCLA. We don't know yet how far Florida follows that script, but we do know that this repeat business is proving difficult.

"At times it's going to look ugly," Donovan said. "It just is."

Florida will continue to face every opponent's "A" game from here on out. And as long as Billy Donovan is leaving open the door of speculation about Kentucky, he'll continue to get questions about it at every opportunity.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.