A few weeks ago Florida coach Billy Donovan traveled to South Bend, Ind., for his son's first college basketball game. Sitting in the stands with his family, Donovan said he was overcome by two emotions when William – a freshman at Catholic University – checked in at the scorer's table during an exhibition loss at Notre Dame.
"It made me feel proud," Donovan said, "and it made me feel old. I kept thinking, 'I can't believe I have a son in college.' There are people in Florida who still call me Billy the Kid."
Donovan, 45, still sports a youthful look. But after 15 years and two national championships at Florida, he's gone from a pesky up-and-comer to a coach who is widely regarded as one of the elite in the profession.
Donovan will have plenty of opportunities to enhance his status this season.
Florida, 1-0, is ranked ninth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and was picked by conference coaches to finish first in the SEC East. The high expectations are refreshing for the Gators, who haven't won an NCAA tournament game since beating Ohio State for the national title in 2007.
Florida missed the tournament in 2008 and 2009 before losing in the first round last season to BYU. The Gators return all five starters from that team in Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, Vernon Macklin, Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. And they added one of the nation's most promising freshmen in forward Patric Young.
Donovan's squad defeated North Carolina-Wilmington in last week's opener and is now preparing for what may be its toughest opponent of the season in Ohio State. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes, who visit Gainesville on Tuesday, lost National Player of the Year Evan Turner to the NBA draft. But four returning starters surround freshman forward – and future NBA lottery pick – Jared Sullinger.
Tipoff is at 6 p.m. EST.
"This will be a great test for us," Donovan said. "Ohio State, in my opinion, is a team that should be favored to win the national championship."
Donovan talked at length about the matchup before discussing a few other topics during a post-practice interview with Yahoo! Sports.
Q: Tuesday's game against Ohio State is one of the top non-conference games of the season. What's your philosophy on playing high-profile opponents so early?
A: "When you play a team this good in November, you get a realistic view of where your team is at. This game isn't going to shape our season. But it will make both of us better. A couple of years ago, after we lost Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, we really lightened our schedule up because I wanted to give our guys time to adjust and get acclimated as freshmen. All of a sudden, two or three weeks into the SEC schedule, we were 18-3, and we had a false sense of who we were. With this game, all we can do is get better. I truly believe we're playing one of the elite teams in the country."
Q: What impresses you about Ohio State?
A: "I'm not at all trying to sound disrespectful toward their team last year. Evan Turner was a great, great player for them. He was the National Player of the Year, the second player taken in the NBA draft. But I think they're a better team this year than they were last year. I think sometimes when you have a player like Evan Turner, where the ball is in hands so much because he's so good and so talented, everyone kind of looks to him to bail them out in every situation. When they're down or things aren't going well, everyone is like, 'Our guy will bail us out.' I think this year they're more of a complete team. Sullinger, besides being really talented, is a really, really smart player. The freshmen who impact college basketball are more than just talented. They have a great basketball IQ. He's got that."
Q: They've got seniors such as David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale and Jon Diebler. How much does that help?
A: "Six of the 10 starters in the game Tuesday are going to be seniors. How often does that really happen? Thad [Matta] has the perfect storm with three seniors who are big-time college winners. And then he added one of the top recruiting classes in the country. That's the formula for a national championship in my opinion. When you bring in five or six talented freshmen and have to depend on all of them … that's hard. Eventually those guys are going to stumble. But when you have seniors – I mean, Lighty played against us in 2007 national championship game – those guys have been around. They help the young guys."
Q: How would you describe your program's journey since winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007?
A: "It's been interesting. I don't know how I'd describe it, other than to say we basically had to start over. When we lost all those guys after 2007, the program was in worse shape than when I took it over. When I say worse shape, I mean personnel-wise. We had six freshmen, three sophomores and one junior. It was awful. Guys like Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons have evolved into all-league caliber players, but back then they were just young, trying to figure it out."
Q: I'm guessing it also didn't help when you had guys leave earlier than expected. How big of a setback was that?
A: "People understood when we lost Noah, Horford and Brewer. But the next few years, losing guys like Marreese Speights and Nick Calathes … that was tough. After the national championship we went to back-to-back NITs, and we lost our best players from those teams. I don't know a lot of guys that go pro after the NIT. Speights was a talented, gifted kid that got put into a difficult situation with so many young guys. If Speights and Calathes had hung around a little bit longer, we could've turned the corner a little bit sooner."
Q: So you feel as if you've turned the corner with this group?
A: "I love our team. I don't know if our talent level from top to bottom is similar to Ohio State's. We don't have a guy like Sullinger. We don't have a freshman right now that's a lottery pick after one year. I love our freshmen and I love our team and I love what we have. I love that Parsons, and Tyus and Macklin have grown and matured and gotten better. They've got a year under their belt. And I really like our freshman class. They're tough and they're physical. And they realize that it's the last go-round for Tyus and Parsons and Macklin. They have the right mentality. I like our team. I just don't know where we are yet. That's why I'm interested to see how we match up against one of the best teams in the country. I don't know if we're at the level of Ohio State."
Q: Speaking of freshmen, how is Patric Young coming along? He only scored two points in your season-opener? Any reason for concern?
A: "I watched Patric Young play against Sullinger and [Michigan State's Adreian] Payne in AAU ball. Physically, he was a dominant force against those guys. Now, coming into college, I see that Sullinger's basketball IQ is at such an unbelievable level. He's so smart and intelligent basketball-wise. Patric has always been able to rely on brute force and strength and physicality. He's going to play harder than you. That's all good. That's important. But now he needs to get better with the basketball IQ stuff. He's got to understand that he can't always physically dominate. He's going to be a great, great player. He's got a great motor. He plays hard. Now it's our job to help him grow in terms of understanding the game."
Q: You also added a transfer in guard Mike Rosario, who led Rutgers in scoring the past two seasons. … Even though he can't play this season, how valuable has he been in practice?
A: "He's been OK. He's had some ups and downs. He's talented, a great player. But he's got to grow up in a lot of ways. Rutgers signed him and tried to make him the cornerstone of the program. Maybe he was [coddled] a little bit. Now he's probably feeling like he's back at St. Anthony's High School with Bob Hurley. There's more accountability and responsibility. I'm not trying to say Rutgers didn't hold him accountable. But when he's clearly your best player, it's a different thing. Here, with Boynton and Erving Walker and Brad Beal, if he doesn't want to do the things that are necessary … mean, we'll still be fine."
Q: Switching gears a bit … it was a tough offseason for a few high-profile programs that got caught breaking rules when it comes to recruiting. How disheartening is it to see schools such as Tennessee and Connecticut dealing with off-court issues?
A: "Everybody is looking to gain an advantage. There's no question. But there are ways to get an advantage with a recruit where you can stay inside the rules. What's coming to light now – not just with basketball, but with football – is the amount of stuff that's actually going on. I understand coaches trying to gain an advantage. But when we're intentionally going over the line, that's when it becomes a bad deal."
Q: Have you ever had to deal with any sort of negative situation involving recruiting?
A: "I got criticized a lot in the past. I did a home visit with Mike Miller at 12:01 midnight the first day I was allowed to talk to him. People thought that was unethical, that it was wrong. But I've always tried to stay within the rules and be creative to try to gain an advantage. But when it comes to intentionally making excessive phone calls or seeing recruits during a dead period or paying them money … there comes a point where you have to make a decision. You have to say, 'Wait a minute. This is not who I am. This isn't who I want to be.'"
Q: What, if anything, can be done to stop some of the violations that continue to occur throughout college basketball?
A: "I'll be interested to see how [the NCAA] handles this stuff. It's a hard thing. The NCAA needs to look at what's best for the game and question whether the rules need to be changed. I sense more and more that there are kids that feel like, 'I'm a high-profile player – a potential pro – and you're going to make a lot of money off me. You're selling my jersey. You're creating a likeness of me and you're making money off of me.' A lot of kids see that now and it's totally changed. The stakes keep getting higher and higher and higher."
Q: Still, at the end of the day, aren't coaches the ones who are ultimately responsible?
A: "When you know you're crossing over the line and you still do it … that's where it gets somewhat disappointing. We all get put into situations where we can make an extra phone call, or some coach says, 'Why don't you come to campus this week.' The recruit says it's a dead period and the coach says, 'No one will know. C'mon down.' You've got to be able to not get disillusioned. You have to draw a line in the sand and say, 'I'll walk up to this line. But I'm not going to cross it.'
"I feel bad for people like Bruce Pearl and Jim Calhoun. They're not bad people. When you're trying to build a program and make decisions, sometimes your decision-making process can get clouded. You start justifying it your mind by saying, 'I'm not the only guy doing this.' You hear about other stuff and you get into that everyone else is doing this mode. And you think you have to do it, too."