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Florida faces critical questions after departure of Billy Donovan

How will Florida basketball fare in its post-Billy Donovan era?

Billy the Kid is off to Oklahoma City, which raises a consequential question about the place he just left: Is Florida an excellent college basketball program, or is its excellence traceable entirely to the man who built it and ran it? Billy Donovan took over a historically negligible program in 1996 and willed it to four Final Fours and two national championships. Yet even he couldn’t avoid slippage. He followed back-to-back national titles in 2006 and '07 with consecutive NIT berths in '08 and '09, and after his team won 30 straight games and reached the Final Four in 2014, this past season the Gators finished with a losing record (16-17) for the first time in 17 seasons. It’s not safe to assume anything about how Florida will carry on without Donovan, not with the predators prowling the SEC now, not with peers pursuing basketball relevance.

Donovan made this program what it is. Keeping it that way requires a premium desire to do so, and possibly a premium offer to someone else’s coach. It doesn’t require athletic director Jeremy Foley to wave around $4 million and wait for top-shelf coaches to come running; that was admittedly my knee-jerk reaction, but it’s not quite the right one. Still, Florida should think no modest thoughts. It must approach this with a willingness to make an offer to a coach who can maintain what Donovan created. Florida must find someone with a proven and/or consistent track record of high-end success and give him what he needs to take on the job. Otherwise, it risks the rot setting in after the caretaker is gone.

Foley will be in a familiar position. He can cast his eye where he typically does: Just below that major-conference head coach waterline. Instead of up-and-comers there, though, he’ll find plenty who have arrived.

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Most notably there is Dayton’s Archie Miller, who has 53 wins and one Elite Eight berth in the past two seasons and turns 37 this October. Or Xavier’s Chris Mack, 45, who has averaged 22.3 wins in six seasons with three Sweet 16 berths. Or could Duke assistant Jeff Capel paddle into view, fresh off helping the Blue Devils win a national title and compile the nation’s top recruiting class? They’d be plucked from the same level as some of Foley’s football hires (Urban Meyer from Utah, Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator at Texas, Jim McElwain from Colorado State) and then it is simply a matter of ensuring they’ll say yes with the appropriate number on the offer sheet.

After my initial instinct called upon Florida to open the vault for anyone, SI colleague Andy Staples astutely noted that the notion of handing a new basketball coach something like McElwain’s $3.5 million package is pure folly. (For this reason, luring Gregg Marshall to Gainesville—when he will make $3.3 million annually in his new Wichita State deal—seems a non-starter.) But there is a price to holding firm to a spot near the top of the ladder, a toll paid to avoid getting kicked down the rungs as others use your shoulders to climb.

Present a new hire a package that matches—and, if necessary, exceeds—what Mississippi State handed Ben Howland ($2.05 million per) or what Tennessee dropped before Rick Barnes ($2.25 million) earlier this offseason. If the idea is to compete for SEC titles, compete here, too. Make it impossible for the best option to refuse the burden of following Donovan, in order to best preserve what Donovan has done.

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Should Florida opt for a half-measure—promoting newly re-hired assistant Anthony Grant to interim head coach for 2015-16 and reassessing next spring—it may do a Donovan confidant a favor while doing the program a disservice. If Grant was the chosen successor before Donovan reneged on the Orlando Magic job in 2007, one NCAA tournament appearance in six years at Alabama is not an audition worthy of a callback. Foley has long cast himself as an administrator who will not put off a decision when it becomes self-evident; now would be a good time to focus on that particualr Successories poster in his office.

In the broader view, the school seems conscious of how it must position itself to remain among the elite, in the SEC and nationally. It has $60 million allocated for what it deems a “major renewal” of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center; though the project was postponed until next year, Foley said in a news release in February that Florida is “100% committed” to it. The follow-through will be the thing, of course, but we’ll give the school the benefit of the doubt there. It has its weathered facilities but is no basketball spendthrift, with its $9.5 million of men’s hoops expenses in 2013-14 trailing only Kentucky ($16.1 million) and Auburn ($10.2 million) among SEC programs, per U.S. Department of Education data.

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More can be done, always. There is no limit to the polish and finery a program can aim for anymore. But Florida at least wants everyone to believe it believes basketball is important.

Its next move can offer the best proof of that.

The success and the resources and the reputation of the program derived from the guidance of one man. Now, after 19 years, Billy Donovan is gone. He did not leave behind an easy task, in the near- and long-term. Florida has two of its top three scorers and a former five-star recruit, Chris Walker, who never met his potential yet declared for the NBA draft anyway. It signed a top-20 recruiting class that, tellingly, is nevertheless rated fourth-best in the SEC. The talent within state lines isn’t teeming; take away the imports at powerhouse prep schools like IMG Academy and Montverde Academy, and the Sunshine State has produced 11 top-50 recruits between 2010 and '15. If Donovan made winning in Gainesville look easy, it’s hardly as easy as it seems.

Replacing Billy Donovan and maintaining what he built is a big deal. Bigger still? How much Florida acts like that matters.