PHOENIX — With Marquette bowing out late on Thursday night and Michigan State having done so earlier in the evening, the West Region is all about Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Florida’s Billy Donovan — if it wasn’t already. The storytelling about the potential mentor/mentee, player/coach matchup in the Elite Eight began on Wednesday, in the first press conferences when the teams arrived in Phoenix. Pitino told the tale of when the two met: Just after he’d taken the Providence job in 1985, Donovan “waddled” into his office, a fat (by basketball standards) guard looking for permission to transfer, hopefully to Northeastern or Fairfield. “He left the meeting,” Pitino said, “and I said a Hail Mary and thanked God he was leaving. Because he averaged four minutes a game as a freshman and sophomore.”
There was a problem: Northeastern and Fairfield didn’t think Donovan was good enough for them, either. Pitino didn’t want to hurt the kid’s feelings, so he made him an offer. If he could lose 30 pounds and get into all-out pressing shape by the fall, he’d have a shot at the back end of Providence’s rotation. Donovan did it, was the Friars’ third guard in 1985-86, then blossomed into an All-America in ’86-87, making what Pitino called the greatest improvement he’d ever seen out of a player in 35 years of coaching. Pitino went to the extent of putting Donovan on the cover of a Providence program in a cowboy hat, spurs and boots, and despite his protests, the Billy The Kid nickname was born. “That,” Pitino said, “was the start of his college legend.”
The next two days are bound to be all about the Rick-and-Billy legend, from Providence to the Knicks to Kentucky to the present. When Louisville and Florida meet on Saturday, the storyline will be focused on a Hall of Fame coach and his plucky, unwanted guard who worked his way to stardom.
Which is all well and good, but it will obscure the story that’s driving Donovan’s current Gators. That one is about another young guard, who unlike Donovan was very much wanted and hyped, to the extent that he was the No. 4 recruit in Rivals’ Class of 2011 rankings and a projected lottery pick before even playing a college game. Brad Beal, a 6-foot-4 phenom from St. Louis, had a frustrating, cold-shooting start to his college career — “He had a lot of expectations,” Donovan said, “and he wasn’t having fun” — but is now threatening to take over this quadrant of the NCAA tournament.
In one of Marquette’s scouting sessions of Florida on Wednesday, coach Buzz Williams warned his team, “Beal is by far their most efficient player, relative to the things we study — the things that go into winning.” If the Golden Eagles didn’t take heed of it then, they can just look at the box score from their 68-58 loss, in which Beal scored 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, grabbed six rebounds, dished out four assists, blocked two shots and had two steals. He did so many things that went into winning that his backcourt mate, junior Erving Walker, called Beal’s play spectacular. “He’s only a freshman,” Walker said, “but he’s been leading us.”
Before Beal could assume this role — and go for 14 points and 11 rebounds, then 14-and-9 and 21-and-6 in his first three NCAA tournament games, he had to come to terms with two things. The first was that he wasn’t valuable to the Gators as a one-dimensional gunner, which is what he started out trying to be. Beal only made 33 percent of his threes this season, and early on, Donovan said, “If his shot wasn’t falling, he wasn’t trying to do anything else.” Donovan talked to Beal about finding other ways to contribute, such as by driving the ball to the rim and rebounding. Beal responded by penetrating and dishing more often, and becoming the team’s leading rebounder, at 6.7 per game.
The second issue was more sensitive: It became evident to Donovan — and many around the program — that Beal was the team’s best player, but he was painfully hesitant to assert himself in a backcourt that already had two veteran starters in Walker and junior Kenny Boynton. Neither were providing the leadership that Florida needed to be a real Final Four contender, though, so Donovan told Beal: “Listen, I brought you in here to bring our team to another level, and you need to stop worrying about everyone else’s feelings.”
Beal didn’t want to come across as selfish, but Florida reached a point where it needed him to take over, or it was going to suffer an early exit in the NCAA tournament. And there seems to be a mutual realization in the Gators’ locker room, as they hunt the program’s first Final Four since 2007, that this is their optimal arrangement. “Brad wanted to fit in,” Walker said. “At this time of year, it’s not about fitting in. It’s about being the best player that you can be.”
That was the case for Beal on Thursday. He was a monster in the first half, hitting two threes, and in the second, he asserted himself with three drives to the rim against a Marquette team that came into the game with a reputation of being the aggressor off the dribble. Beal played three different positions — the 2, 3 and 4 — and guarded Marquette’s star power forward, Jae Crowder, for stretches, helping hold him to 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting. The Golden Eagles wanted to win a transition game and had the athletes to do so, but it was Beal who looked indefatigable.
Earlier in the day, Beal received a series of text messages from his skills trainer, Drew Hanlen, a fellow St. Louis product who just finished his college career as the two-guard for Belmont, which lost in the first round to Georgetown. This summer in St. Louis, Hanlen ran Beal through 100 hours of workouts in 30 days to get him ready for college. Hanlen sent a photo of Beal looking absolutely dead at the end of that stretch — bent over at the waist, heaving, with his hands on his knees. “If this pic doesn’t provide motivation,” Hanlen wrote, “I don’t know what does. Remember all the hard work you put in this summer, and remember how much fun we had. … You’re the best player in college basketball, and once you truly believe that, everyone else will too.”
There’s still a lot of star power left in the bracket, including Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson. All three had better regular seasons than Beal did, but over the past two weeks, Beal has elevated himself to their level. He is knocking down threes (he’s made 10 of his last 21), attacking the rim and leading without worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes. Florida is his team now.
After the SEC tournament, Beal told Hanlen that he felt ready to take over like Donovan had requested. Hanlen said he and Beal talked “about how legends are made in March.” Donovan’s college story concluded with a trip to the Final Four. Will Beal’s finish the same way before he (very likely) moves on to the NBA draft?
The timeline for NCAA legend-making is shorter than it was in the ’80s. What were once four-year stories are often condensed into one. In just a few months, Beal has gone from pouty to transcendent, and in just a few weeks, he has gone from a question mark to a postseason star. When you only have one NCAA tournament in which to define yourself, you figure things out on the fly.