AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Sunday may feel like old times for Minnesota’s Tubby Smith and Florida’s Billy Donovan. They certainly are familiar with each other.
The two coaches have three national championships between them and a history of intense head-to-head competition in the Southeastern Conference dating to the late 1990s when Smith was at Georgia and Kentucky and Donovan started at Florida.
They’ll renew the rivalry for one game when Donovan’s Gators (27-7), the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament South Regional, face Smith’s No. 11 Gophers (21-12). The winner advances to the round of 16.
Smith, who left Kentucky for Minnesota in 2007, said he’s glad to see Donovan again because it means he’s got his team playing at a high level. The Gophers’ 83-63 win Friday night over UCLA was his first NCAA tournament victory in six years at Minnesota. The Gators are a perennial national power.
“We have had our battles,” Smith said Saturday. “If you’re going up against him, you know your team has probably risen to that level of good play.”
Smith and Donovan knocked heads for a decade while leading two of the premiere programs in the country. Smith won a national title with Kentucky Wildcats in 1998. Donovan won two with the Gators in 2006 and 2007. They haven’t faced each other in six years.
And long before they were rivals, they were partners as Kentucky assistants under Rick Pitino from 1989-1991.
Smith noted that when they first met, Donovan was an eager youngster learning the job — one nickname was “Billy the Kid” — and now he’s the most successful coach in the SEC.
“I know he’s the dean, so he’s getting older now,” Smith joked. “What Billy’s been able to do at Florida has been outstanding. Florida’s a program that really wasn’t noted for its basketball and he’s taken it to unbelievable heights.”
Donovan said both coaches learned something from Pitino they carry to this day. “The one thing is probably trying to get players to play together … understanding that there’s a greater good when everybody’s sacrificing together,” Donovan said.
By straight numbers, Smith has a 14-10 edge over his old rival, but Donovan won the last six meetings.
Donovan said he remembers Smith’s teams always being tough, disciplined and unselfish on offense. The Gophers have certainly shown their resilience while playing in the rugged Big Ten, a conference that already has two teams in the round of 16 — Michigan State and Michigan — and four more playing for a shot Sunday.
Donovan seemed to downplay the coaching rivalry in the postseason.
“Even though it’s Tubby on the other end of the sideline, I’m not watching him. I’m watching what’s going on on the court,” Donovan said. “All I can say is Tubby is a terrific coach, he’s done a great job with his team.”
Minnesota fans weren’t so sure about that when the tournament began. After a 15-1 start, the Gophers slid through a 5-11 finish. They hadn’t won a game since March 2 until beating UCLA and there had been speculation in the Twin Cities that Smith may be coaching for his job.
Smith may have dampened the criticism with the win over UCLA, where Bruins coach Ben Howland was facing his own critics back home. Donovan beat Howland’s Bruins to win his first national championship in 2006 and beat them again in the national semifinal a year later.
“If it’s about the winning and the losing part of it, to me, that’s crazy,” Donovan said. “Tubby’s won (a) national championship. He’s an outstanding coach. He’s done it for a very, very long time. If there’s something greater or deeper inside that nobody else knows about, then it’s hard for me to comment on that.
“But if you’re talking coaching wise, both of those guys are outstanding and terrific and as good as anybody in the business,” Donovan said.
On Sunday, the Gators will be playing for their third straight appearance in the round of 16. Minnesota overwhelmed UCLA with strength around the basket and the outside shooting of guard Andre Hollins, who made five 3-pointers and scored 28 points. Trevor Mbakwe grabbed 12 rebounds.
The Gators crushed Northwestern State 79-47 Friday night with four players scoring in double figures. Forward Eric Murphy had 18 points and eight rebounds.
“They’re a Big Ten team, they’re a physical team,” Murphy said of the Gophers. “We’ve got to match that.”
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