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Move over, Fun 'n' Gun

Once again, Gators seeking to build hoops pedigree

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Posted: Monday March 08, 1999 09:49 PM

  Forward Mike Miller is a big reason the Gators are headed back to the NCAAs after a four-year absence. AP

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- Watch out Steve Spurrier: Florida is on the verge of becoming a legitimate basketball school.

Of course, before Spurrier starts worrying about his office space, he should recall that Gator basketball has reached this point before.

And as Florida (20-8) prepares for its first NCAA tournament since 1995, both coach Billy Donovan and athletic director Jeremy Foley agree that it will take more than a single good season to make it happen.

"We all know that we've got to produce good results year in and year out before we change the perception," Foley said Monday, as the team prepared for a first-round game in Seattle against Penn.

He speaks from experience.

Foley saw the team make the Final Four in 1994, only to revert back to its mediocre ways within two seasons. Donovan was the guy he brought in to attempt another resurrection.

"The 1994 team was spectacular," Foley said. "And in terms of feelings at the university, at that point in time, we felt that Florida basketball had arrived. That's why, when we only won (13) games two years later, people said we were a flash in the pan.

"And then came the age-old question: Can this be a basketball school?"

Donovan figures that may always be a question here, as long as Spurrier's teams continue to draw 85,000 for every game, finish in the top 10 and compete for national titles.

But by using the success of the football team to his advantage, Donovan feels he can establish something just as special right across the street from The Swamp.

"We bring kids here for visits in September and October," Donovan said. "It's a pretty impressive place to bring them to. I try to tell them that when we get 85,000 for basketball games, that's really going to be something."

The Gators averaged 10,857 for Southeastern Conference home games this season, behind only the 1986-87 team, the first Florida team to make an NCAA tournament.

When he came here, Donovan sensed that it wasn't just winning that brought out fickle basketball fans in Florida.

He promised an exciting, up-tempo, 3-point-shooting style, the exact opposite of teams that played -- and won -- for Lon Kruger in the mid-90s.

Then, he recruited to make the plan work.

Forward Mike Miller, point guard Teddy Dupay and center Udonis Haslem, all freshmen, were three of the team's four top scorers this season.

One McDonald's All-American, guard Brett Nelson of St. Albans, W. Va., has committed to Florida for next season. The Gators are in the running for another, Donnell Harvey of Cuthbert, Ga.

Regardless of anything else, Donovan knows that kind of talent is the only thing that will turn Florida into a true basketball school. It's something that was lacking at the time Kruger left in 1996 and Donovan started interviewing for the job.

Initially, Donovan's mentor and former coach, Rick Pitino, advised him against coming to Gainesville.

"He was concerned because two years before, they had gone to the Final Four," Donovan said. "He felt the perception was that people felt they had to go back in another year or two and that those expectations were totally unrealistic."

Foley assured Donovan that wasn't the case.

Over the last three years, Donovan has retooled the program to his liking. He seems poised to take Florida to the high level it reached under Kruger.

Keeping it there is another thing.

"What the average guy thinks about Florida basketball isn't relevant to us right now," Foley said. "Our goal is changing what the average guy thinks about us 10 years from now. That's when we want them to look back on this as a team that's an annual NCAA attendee, a team that's a competitor for SEC championships and national championships every year."

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