Billy the Kid and His Gators Eager to Take One Last Step

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's everything you look for in a coach: young, energetic and forward-thinking.

He recruits harder than the armed forces, prefers his hair combed back and gelled, reveres the word of John R. Wooden and works on a sun-splashed campus where palm trees sway and championships are part of the landscape.

Tonight, his team plays for the national title against Michigan State at the RCA Dome.

This would have been the perfect end-game script for UCLA Coach Steve Lavin; it happens to be the short biography of Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators.

Donovan, 34, has arrived at nirvana ahead of all the other kid coaches. It took hard work, the right players, mentors along the way, a break-neck offensive system and, yes, one incredible bit of luck against Butler in the first round.

"No question, we're very fortunate to be here," Donovan said Sunday. "I realize we could be sitting at home."

Who doesn't need luck?

"You know, I look back at UCLA with Tyus Edney making his shot at the buzzer against Missouri," he says of Edney's famous shot in the 1995 tournament. "Everybody has close games."

Maybe some things are meant to be.

Butler had Florida whipped in the opening round. LaVall Jordan, Butler's best free-throw shooter, stood at the line with eight seconds left. Two makes puts his team up by three. Instead, LaVall missed both, the Gators raced down court, Teddy Dupay passed to Mike Miller, who drove to the lane and shot putted up the winner at the buzzer.

"How many times does an 86% free thrower miss two in a row?" Florida sophomore center Udonis Haslem said. "Little kids go out and act like the clock's winding down and don't hit that shot [that Miller made]. We were given a second chance and have made the best of that second chance."

Since that near-death experience, the Gators have won four games by an average of 12.5 points and Donovan, instead of a first-round flameout, was interrogated Sunday by reporters wanting to know of his philosophies and influences.

Thursday, Donovan said, he found himself in the company of Wooden, UCLA's legendary coach.

"He talked about his 10 championships," Donovan said. "And he said, 'You want to know how come I have 10 national champions? It's because I had real good players.' "

Donovan also has real good players, a core of 10 freshmen and sophomores that rank among the finest recruits in years.

But it's more than that. A team reflects its coach, and the Gators now are riding the adrenaline rush of a man still too young to run for President.

The Gators learned after Butler about the preciousness of second opportunities. They turned the Butler game into an epiphany, and since have dislodged Illinois, Duke, Oklahoma State and North Carolina.

"I saw my whole career flash in front of me," senior guard Kenyan Weaks said of the Butler experience. "That game brought us together emotionally. The season could have been over with."

Instead, Donovan has a chance at sharing the spoils of Gainesville glory with football Coach Steve Spurrier, whose Gators won a national title in 1996.

Donovan and Spurrier, in fact, have similar, up-tempo styles: Spurrier has his Fun 'N Gun offense and Donovan has "Billy Ball."

Tonight's title game is an intriguing meld of experience and youth. Michigan State is led by seniors Mateen Cleaves, A.J. Granger and Morris Peterson. In the span of two days, the Spartans could not face two teams that were more polar opposites.

Michigan State shot only 34.9% in a painful-to-watch win over Wisconsin in Saturday's national semifinals.

In sharp contrast, Michigan State now faces a 10-deep Florida squad that was born to run.

Cleaves almost sees the game as a relief. "I'm a little more happy to be playing Florida," he said, "as far as we can get up and down and play somewhat our style of basketball. Wisconsin is going to take the air out of the basketball, they're going to get back on defense, it's going to be a tough, physical game."

Up-tempo is the only dance step Donovan knows.

"I've got the utmost respect for Dick Bennett as a coach," Donovan said. "His personality would not allow him to play the way we play. My personality would not allow our teams to play the way Wisconsin plays."

Donovan comes by his convictions honestly. He was baptized in the faith at Providence in 1987, when coach Rick Pitino and his guard, Donovan, ran the Friars to the Final Four.

At first, though, Pitino didn't think Donovan had a future as a coach. "He told me I was too nice and that wouldn't be a good thing for me," Donovan said. "But I had a chance to experience working on Wall Street for a while, and just could not see myself doing that for the rest of my life."

Donovan became an assistant to Pitino at Kentucky in 1989, and served there until he became head coach at Marshall in 1994.

Donovan was out of the Lexington loop when Kentucky won the national title in 1996, but Pitino's system has served as a template when Donovan became Florida coach in 1996.

Pitino's title team at Kentucky had much more experience--Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Anthony Epps--than Donovan's young pups.

Yet both coaches faced similar challenges: getting eight to 10 high profile players to sacrifice their statistics for the good of the team.

"It's a constant sales job," Donovan admitted. "And we sell winning all the time."

TONIGHT'S CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

MICHIGAN STATE (31-7) vs. FLORIDA (29-7)

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Michigan State has been preparing for Florida's full-court press by practicing five-on-seven drills all season. Page 11

SCOUTING REPORT

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