Welcome to Billy Donovan Court, where, for one night, everything seemed to be as it should.
The O’Connell Center was packed, and loud. Scores of legends who once played on the hardwood floor in the center of the arena were back together for a massive reunion. The legend of all legends who once coached them, Billy Donovan, was back. And for just the fourth time all season, the Florida Gator basketball team put on a show that reminded us all of what they could have been to begin with in the ultimate feel-good evening in Gainesville.
Noah Locke led the way with nineteen points on six threes, Kerry Blackshear added fifteen and Keyontae Johnson put on his own slam dunk show for those who missed the All-Star weekend festivities as the Gators cruised past Vanderbilt, 84-66. But that was merely the undercard on a night in which Florida renamed the court after Donovan, who won both of Florida’s national championships, six of its seven SEC Championships in his nineteen years and took the Gators to four of their five Final Fours while patrolling the sidelines in Gainesville.
Florida played this game like it wanted to end it as quickly as possible so that the fans could enjoy the real purpose of the night. After a slow start, the Gators unleashed a torrent of misery upon the last-place Commodores with a 31-8 run over the latter ten minutes of the first half. Everything went right for Mike White’s club on this evening: the team defended well, shots fell regardless of where they were launched from, and Vanderbilt turned the ball over left and right.
Commodores coach Jerry Stackhouse even got himself ejected from the game after getting nailed with back to back technical fouls late in the half. That set up a rare seven point possession for the Gators, where Scottie Lewis made two free throws for the first “T” and two more for the second; Florida got the ball following the fourth free throw, and Tre Mann promptly buried a three just before the halftime buzzer. That made it 48-19 at the break.
Then the real festivities began.
The lights dimmed, and fans were told to direct their attention to the video boards above midcourt. A presentation began, featuring then-athletic director Jeremy Foley talking about how Donovan had changed the basketball culture at Florida despite being derided with comments like, “oh, you’ll never be able to do that at Florida.” Several of Donovan’s former assistants- including Anthony Grant, Richard Pitino, Larry Shyatt, John Pelphrey and Shaka Smart- spoke in the presentation, thanking Donovan for making them better coaches, better leaders, better husbands and fathers, and better human beings. “He embodies everything that this athletic program wants to be,” remarked Foley in the video. “Relationships like this are once in a generation.”
Then the lights shifted on the court, and Billy Donovan walked onto the freshly anointed Billy Donovan Court to address his audience. He thanked his assistant coaches for putting in the hard work necessary to run the program and sharing his vision. He thanked the support staff, managers and “people up in the offices” for the sacrifices they all made. He thanked Jeremy Foley for taking a chance on a then-30 year old and then building a partnership and bond that still exists to this day. And he thanked his players for believing in him and executing his plays to the tune of 467 wins, in his nineteen seasons.
Last but not least, he thanked the fans for making the O’Connell Center “the most difficult place to play in college basketball.” He ended his speech with a simple message: “When you look down at the court, see your name down there as well. Because you’re just as much a part of it as anybody else. Thank you, God bless, and go Gators!”
The truth is, it’s very difficult to image that too many fans were focused on what took place on the court in the second half. After all, how could they? The program has been steadily declining since the 2016-17 season, this year’s team has been the most disappointing of all, and Donovan had just brought back all the good memories that Gator basketball is supposed to provide. This night was a party, a celebration of all that the man who made this program what it is today once did. But there was one more feel good moment awaiting the fans on Billy Donovan Court.
Former manager Chris Sutherland, a walk-on who joined the team last month- got into the game, a classic Donovan-esque gesture by Mike White. Donovan, who always made sure to get his walk-ons into lopsided games, watched with a big smile as Sutherland got fouled and drained a free throw. And that officially made Billy Donovan Court the loudest it had ever been.
Let’s keep things real for a minute, though. It’s not too late for this team to finally find itself, and so it’s not altogether impossible, but believing that they will do so would be directly defying three months- three years, really- of game tape and box scores littered with inconsistency and downright mediocrity. This team has an abundance of flaws on both sides of the floor, a melting pot of issues that come together to hold them back on a frighteningly frequent basis. And Vanderbilt, who sits 148 in the NET rankings, 174 in KenPom and 1-11 in the SEC, fixes precisely zero of them.
That said, here’s the current situation. With the win, Florida improves to 16-9 on the year and 8-4 in the SEC. More importantly, the win also serves as a confidence boost as the schedule suddenly gets much tougher. Florida finishes the year with two games against rival Kentucky, one against an LSU team that’s reeling but highly talented, one against a Tennessee team that’s been a nuisance of late, one against an Arkansas team that’s about on par with Florida and one against rival Georgia, who has somehow won three of the last five over Florida.
Can this team play like Donovan inspired them to play the rest of the way, without him being physically in attendance, against better teams? The answer is yes, they can, and let’s not turn this into the eighteen thousandth discussion about how much talent is on this roster, but that leads to another question: will they? With everything I’ve seen this year, I’m left with no other logical answer than “No, they won’t, this was a fluke against an atrocious team and I refuse to let a fluke against an atrocious team override the sum of their first 24 games.”
But worst case scenario- even if that objective doomsday projection comes true, if nothing else, Saturday night reminded us all of what this program should aspire to be. It should aspire to wildly mob itself at midcourt as orange and blue confetti falls, climb ladders and cut down nets, and dump ice water on their dapperly dressed coach in the locker room. That’s not what Mike White has done so far, but even if I’m right and he never does do any of that, some other coach will one day replace him and lead Florida back to that. That’s the Gator Standard- the standard that Billy the Kid once set long before the playing surface was named Billy Donovan Court. Being reminded of the Gator Standard during a halftime show doesn’t bring it back just like that, but it does serve as an oasis in an otherwise miserable era that has pitted portions of the fan base against each other while the program continues to silently sink in the background, and it also serves as hope that we can one day return to that level.
And best case scenario? Maybe, just maybe, seeing Donovan and so many of his legendary former players return home will light the spark beneath this team that it has been lacking for so long, and inspire the talent that Gator fans have been talking about for so long to finally play up to their potential on a consistent basis.