On Billy Donovan's college legacy, and the difficulty of staying at the top

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Friday May 1st, 2015

Eight years have passed since Billy Donovan accepted a five-year, $27.5-million offer to leave Florida and become the new head coach of the Orlando Magic. I was at his introductory press conference, held on the court of the Magic's former practice facility in Maitland, Fla., on June 1, 2007, but my memories of it seem like they're from an alternate reality, similar to having imagined a Tom Izzo-to-the-Cavaliers press conference from 2010, or a John Calipari-to-the-Cavs presser from 2014. Because for Donovan, the Magic job was the path taken and then quickly not taken. He returned to the Gators within a few days, and after a few years it was like the Orlando unveiling never happened. I had to search my old files for something concrete. There was a transcript, and in it, Donovan—who'd just led Florida to back-to-back national championships before deciding to jump to the NBA—was asked about having given up the chance to have a legendary college-coaching legacy.

Donovan was 42 years old. He'd already won 312 college games, 35 at Marshall and the rest in Gainesville. He'd averaged 28 victories over the previous four seasons. He was indisputably an excellent coach with staying power. If he continued apace at Florida, establishing a legacy like Mike Krzyzewski's at Duke, Donovan might have a shot at 1,100 wins before he retired. (At that 28-win pace, he'd have hit 1,124 by the age of 71.) What Donovan said was:

"That [legacy] really entered into the equation for me. ... And one thing that I realized was that yes, that can happen, but the other thing that could happen is, it could just level itself out. I don't know what the future was going to hold. It felt like the future for me was, 'How do I grow, as a coach, as a person, how do I get better?' And I think the way you get better is taking on different challenges."

Icon Sportswire via AP

But Donovan wasn't entirely comfortable with something different. There was a white limousine waiting outside the practice facility to take him to Gainesville, and on the drive home he was already having second thoughts. He would coach eight more seasons at Florida before he was ready for the challenge of the NBA, accepting a reported five-year, $30 million offer on Thursday to take over the Oklahoma City Thunder and coach two potential Hall-of-Famers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And in that eight-season span between Donovan's breakup with the Magic and his commitment to the Thunder, what he worried might happen to his college career, happened: It kind of leveled out.

In the four-season span leading up to Donovan accepting the Magic's offer, these were the top 10 teams in college basketball, according to average adjusted efficiency margin (AAEM). (Charts calculated from kenpom.com's yearly adjusted efficiency data.)

Four-Year Average Adjusted Efficiency Margin, 2002-03 to 2006-07

rank

team

avg. o.e.

avg. d.e.

aaem

1

North Carolina

117.8

92.8

25.0

2

Duke

114.7

90.4

24.3

3

Florida

116.6

93.2

23.4

4

Illinois

113.7

91.7

21.9

5

Kansas

111.7

90.6

21.1

6

Pittsburgh

113.1

92.3

20.8

7

Connectictut

111.1

91.1

20.0

8

Kentucky

113.0

93.2

19.8

9

Wisconsin

111.5

92.2

19.3

10

Villanova

111.8

93.5

18.3

North Carolina, Duke and Florida, 1-2-3. One of those teams had no business being there—a football school with a limited basketball-recruiting base and limited basketball tradition. Yet Donovan had elevated the Gators to college hoops' uppermost stratosphere, building this millennium's closest thing to a dynasty. The challenge of doing this was immense, and the likelihood of sustaining it in Gainesville was minuscule.

MORE CBB: Billy Donovan leaves behind lasting legacy at Florida

The top 10 in AAEM from the next four seasons, 2007-08 through '10-11, did not include Florida. Donovan's rebuilding Gators fell to 31st:

Four-Year Average Adjusted Efficiency Margin, 2007-08 to 2010-11

rank

team

avg. o.e.

avg. d.e.

aaem

1

Kansas

116.8

89.7

27.1

2

Duke

116.8

92.0

24.8

3

North Carolina

114.5

92.5

22.0

4

Pittsburgh

115.3

94.0

21.3

5

Ohio State

115.0

93.8

21.2

6

Wisconsin

114.0

93.0

21.0

7

Texas

114.2

93.5

20.7

8

Louisville

110.5

90.7

19.8

9

West Virginia

113.2

93.5

19.8

10

Connecticut

111.8

92.4

19.4

31

Florida

113.2

98.1

15.1

Over the most recent four seasons, from 2011-12 through '14-15, the Gators got back among the elites. They were eighth in AAEM, and Donovan built another title contender in '13-14—only to lose to UConn in the Final Four and finish 36-3. Those Gators won 30 straight games, but their rotation lacked a sure-fire NBA player. And Donovan, whose only major one-and-done recruit was shooting guard Bradley Beal in '12-13, had to wonder if he'd hit the ceiling for a well-oiled, veteran-dominated—but not NBA-prospect-rich—team in the sport's new era, one in which even Duke is packaging super-freshmen to win titles.

• ​MORE CBB: What's the future of Florida basketball?

Four-Year Average Adjusted Efficiency Margin, 2011-12 to 2014-15

rank

team

avg. o.e.

avg. d.e.

aaem

1

Wisconsin

116.2

92.5

23.7

2

Kentucky

116.8

93.1

23.6

3

Louisville

111.4

88.0

23.4

4

Duke

119.1

96.1

22.9

5

Michigan State

113.6

91.8

21.9

6

Arizona

112.9

91.4

21.6

7

Kansas

112.1

90.7

21.4

8

Florida

112.5

91.4

21.0

9

Ohio State

112.0

91.0

21.0

10

Wichita State

114.0

93.0

20.9

Only three programs remained in the top 10 in AAEM in each of those charts: Duke, Kansas and Wisconsin. Even blueblood North Carolina dropped out in the most recent stage, a prime example of just how difficult it is to sustain long-term success in college hoops. Bo Ryan keeping Wisconsin on that plane is an achievement that's Hall-of-Fame worthy. To do what Donovan did, winning back-to-back titles at a football school, is almost unfathomable, and ensures his status as one of the great college coaches of his era.

Donovan lifted Florida to such unnatural heights that leveling out was inevitable, for him and the program. He took the Gators to three Elite Eights and a Final Four over the past five seasons, yet that wasn't enough: He felt the pull of the NBA stronger than ever before. After a frustrating, 16-17 campaign concluded in March, with limited recruiting reinforcements on the way in, Donovan was primed to accept the Thunder's offer. With Russ and K.D., it'll either be win big or you're gone. The NBA is a stage where coaches don't last long enough to level out.

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