Not his first Final Four. Not consecutive national championships. Not a game last year against his mentor Rick Pitino.
No, those games all pale in comparison to what his team will do Friday, Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
When they step out from the bowels of the US Navy Ship the USS Bataan to play a game against Georgetown in the Navy-Marine Corps Classic in Jacksonville, Donovan said the Gators will be playing the biggest game in the program’s history. It’s not hyperbole, Donovan said, it’s about supporting all the current and past members of the military, like his father Bill, a former enlisted soldier in Army, who defend the country and make enjoying sports a possibility for so many.
“To be on the ship for an event like this means more than I could ever express,” Donovan said. “This is bigger than any game we have had an opportunity to play in.”
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The matchup between No. 10 Florida and Georgetown is one of four games on Friday designed to honor and support the military. The season officially begins at 5:30 p.m. when Connecticut and Michigan State play inside a hangar on Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Marquette and Ohio State play aboard the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., at 7 p.m., and Syracuse and San Diego State cap the evening with a game on the USS Midway in San Diego, which was the site of last year’s first military-themed game between Michigan State and North Carolina.
Of the 2,900 seats erected for Friday’s game, only 600 went to the respected schools competing. The rest will be filled by military personnel. Donovan spoke to Spartans coach Tom Izzo about his experience last year, and Izzo raved about the response his team got from military, who were mostly around the same age as the players on the court.
“A lot of times you watch the news or you watch TV and hear about things going on abroad with people in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever it may be,” Donovan said. “But it’s a different feeling when you know these guys are the same age I am.”
“I think it’s a privilege for us to meet them,” senior guard Kenny Boynton said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. … It’s a game that you’ll never forget.”
Said center Patric Young: “I’m very appreciative. … It’s just a great opportunity for us to perform for them and give back to them.”
Izzo also gave Donovan some tips about dealing the unusual circumstance of playing a basketball game outside at night aboard a ship that’s docked on the water. Although Michigan State’s game last year that tipped off at 4:30 p.m. local time began much earlier than Florida’s 9 p.m. tip, Izzo said his team dealt with condensation issues on the hardwood. Additionally, the Gators and Hoyas could be dealing with cold temperatures, as the weather forecast for Friday in Jacksonville calls for an overnight low of 47 degrees.
“Obviously it’s going to be a totally different situation,” Donovan said. “I don’t know many guys, at least growing up in New York, that when it was 40 degrees out they were playing outside with a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. This is going to be different. None of the guys have probably done anything like this.”
Workers will be drying the court during timeouts in an effort to reduce moisture, and the teams will likely use portable heaters behind the benches and stay in their full warm-up suits while not on the court to combat the cold temperatures.
Donovan said the conditions will likely lead to a poor shooting performance for both teams, like last year’s game between the Spartans and Tar Heels where neither team shot better than 47 percent, meaning an increase importance on rebounding. Florida struggled to rebound at times last year and in its exhibition last week, and that will be even more difficult Friday against the athletic and long Hoyas because the Gators will be without forward Casey Prather (concussions) and point guard Scottie Wilbekin (suspension).
“To me, it’s still a major concern. I don’t like it,” Donovan said of UF’s rebounding. “This [game] is really, really, really going to expose what kind of commitment we have made to rebound the basketball.”