MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Somewhere up there in hoops heaven, after the Florida Gators once again defeated his former program in the NCAA Sweet 16 Thursday night, the late great John Wooden must have looked down in bewilderment at the alternative basketball universe that Billy Donovan has created in Gainesville.
Who would have ever thought the Florida Gators would have a basketball program that would overshadow its football program and then deliver another galling 79-68 defeat to a UCLA team whose football program has overshadowed its basketball program?
Who would have ever thought that the major story line going into Thursday night’s game would be whether UCLA - the program with a storied basketball history - could overcome the recent history of losing game after game against Donovan’s Gators in the NCAA Tournament?
As someone who was a kid growing up in Florida when Wooden was dominant and college basketball in this state was dormant, it was surreal to hear first-year UCLA coach Steve Alford talking about how he hoped to someday build a program at UCLA like Donovan has built at UF.
“To be somewhere 18 years and put your culture in right from the beginning at a university that had not had nearly the success in the past … I have the utmost respect for Billy,” said Alford, who watched his program fall to 0-4 against UF in NCAA tournament play. “He’s put his stamp on that program and (built it) into one of the premier basketball programs in the country.”
The victory over UCLA Thursday extended the Gators’ school-record winning streak to 29 games and advanced them to a fourth straight regional final. Obviously, Donovan’s credentials still pale when compared to the immortal Wooden, who won an unprecedented 10 national titles at UCLA, including an amazing seven in a row at one point. Those marks will never be matched because, quite frankly, college basketball has changed so dramatically since Wooden coached.
In today’s high-profile world of March Madness, the NCAA tournament has expanded to nearly three times the number of teams it had during the Wooden era and there are literally hundreds of schools who are spending big money in hopes of becoming major players in college basketball.
Who would have ever thought Billy Donovan would put the Florida Gators right near the top of John Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success”?