NEW YORK — From 1996 to 2015, Billy Donovan was synonymous with Florida basketball.
It doesn't seem like a stretch for a successful coach to be the face of a program in college sports, but it's not an easy task to reach that status, either. Donovan won back-to-back national championships with Florida in 2006 and '07 after his team was the runner-upin 2000.
Couple that with the fact that the Gatorschompedtheir way to NCAA Tournament berths in 15 of Donovan's 19 seasons, and it's easy to see how beloved Donovan was in Gainesville.
ButMike White, in just his second season as Florida's coach, is on a pretty successful arc as well.
Wait, who? Mike White? He's not Billy Donovan. Surely, the man who was asked to take over after the face of a programmust have worried about following up thefuture Hall of Famer.
Apparently not, as White highlighted during the Gators' media session on Saturday at MSG:
Oh, I just haven't given it any thought. Just dead honest with you. It's about this team developing and getting better. I'm so happy for our guys. It doesn't, the external stuff just doesn't matter to me. It's a Florida job, I'm blessed to be here, it's a great job, it's a great opportunity, got a great group that I'm proud of working with every day and we want to keep playing together. I do find it very, very rewarding that we're having success and that the buy-in level has increased immensely with the coaching staff, with each other, the togetherness is off the charts, the fight, the toughness has been effect. All those things are really, really rewarding. But in terms of the other stuff, it's just not much thought's gone into it really.
But that won't stop Donovan comparisons from being mentioned. In his second year inGainesville — andin a deceptively tough SEC — White has led this Gators team to the Elite Eight. He has amassed a .671 winning percentage (47-23), and the Gators' 2017 recruiting class has three4-starcommits. And now they're on the cusp of aFinal Four berth.
That's a lot of success for a second-year coach, even if it has come atan illustrious college basketball program. But this Florida team isn't like those Donovan teams of the 2000s.The best word to describe this Florida team?Grit. And the Gators showed a swamp full of it Friday.
"We want to come out and be the team that hits first. Be the tougher team," saidChris Chiozza, whose last-second 3-pointer advanced Florida to the Elite Eight over Wisconsin. "The team that wants it more. The more disciplined team."
It's not about a system or a style of play. It's about blood,guts, sweat, tears and all those other sports clichés that make great B-movies.
Sure, Florida blew an eight-point lead with just 1:44 to go in the game. But they had just enough — enough, at least, for aChiozza prayer — to outlast the Badgers in overtime.
The Gators took the Badgers' best punch in the first half, when they were down by as muchas 11. Then Floridawent on a 21-8 run heading into halftime.Highlighting that run was Chiozzagetting in the grill of Badger guard Bronson Koenig, talking trash, chest up, voice loud and showing loads of that fight that White preaches.
TheGators allowed Wisconsin to shoot 70 percent from the floor for the majority of the second half — the Badgers finished out the game shooting 53 percent — yet, Floridafound a way to outfight Wisconsin and steal a victory. And White is a big part of that, as he highlighted during Saturday's media day:
This team, this particular team, toughness and togetherness, I think, is unappreciated. These guys, these are some tough dudes. And South Carolina's got some tough dudes as well. But these guys battle. They battle coming off a win, coming off a loss, they battle against each other every day in practice, and they're together. They like each other, it is a tight-knit group. So again, toughness and togetherness are things that I want these guys remembered for, they certainly deserve that.
That was the biggest theme playersrevisited on Saturday. Words like "fight," "toughness" and "grit" were all mentioned. But Florida forward Kevarrius Hayes highlighted arguably the most important part of what White has accomplished with Florida.
"Regular season, we hadn't really focused on big picture," Hayes told Sporting News. "It was all about the next game, who's up next. One game at a time. And then whenwe got here, we tried to carry on that same aspect, but then kind of using the wholebig-picture idea to push us a little more.
"We're here to build a strong culture and make our legacy. To make it to the Final Four, that's a part of what we all really worked for."
If building a new culture at Florida is the driving force behind this Gators run, then White and Co. are certainly on the right path,Final Four berth or not.