Florida and Minnesota know each other about as well as Justin Bieber and Iggy Pop. The schools have met only once before on the hardwood, and that was 20 years ago.
Their coaches, though, are hardly strangers, and when the Gators square off against the Golden Gophers on Sunday with a trip to the Sweet 16 at stake, it will be a reunion of two old sideline rivals: Billy Donovan and Tubby Smith.
Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game will be their 25th head-to-head showdown, with the most memorable of those being their 22 confrontations from 1997 to 2007, when Smith held the reins at Kentucky.
“We’ve had our battles,” Smith said. “But I’m happy to be facing him again.”
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Said Donovan: “Obviously, Tubby and I go back a long ways.”
Smith’s Wildcats held the series edge over Donovan’s Gators, 12-10. The total margin of victory in those 22 meetings: exactly 22 points in Kentucky’s favor, or one point per game.
Smith also holds two victories over Donovan from his days at Georgia.
But Donovan and the Gators will be favored Sunday when they match wits and strategy for the first time in six years.
The third-seeded Gators reached the Round of 32 with a resounding win over Northwestern State, holding the high-scoring Demons 34 points below their season average, and 11th-seed Minnesota advanced with a decisive 20-point win over UCLA.
Although Donovan and Smith describe each other as “good friends,” they’re quick to mention that it won’t be about them Sunday so much as it will be the players following their instructions.
The Gators will throw one of the nation’s stingiest defenses at Minnesota, a defense that squeezed the life out of Northwestern State, the nation’s top scoring team.
In return, the Golden Gophers will try to make it physical close to the basket, where they dominate. Minnesota, led by 6-8 forward Trevor Mbakwe, is one of the nation’s top rebounding teams. Its plus- 8.2 rebounding margin was the best in the Big Ten.
“They really do a good job of getting it off the glass,” Donovan said. “They’re relentless in terms of going to the glass. And Mbakwe is as good as there is in the country.”
Smith was equally as effusive when discussing the Gators’ defense.
“That’s the biggest concern I have, is just their defense,” Smith said. “And we have a propensity to cough the ball up.”
Minnesota gave it up 443 times during the season, the second-highest total in the Big Ten.
As Donovan noted, though, the Golden Gophers make up for some of their failures with their rebounding prowess.
“Their misses, they get a large number of them back [with offense rebounds],” Donovan said.
Florida enjoyed a better season than Smith’s Gophers, who finished tied for seventh in the Big Ten and struggled down the stretch, losing seven of their final 10 games leading into the NCAA Tournament. Smith, who is in his sixth season at Minnesota, is rumored to be on the hot seat, and a Florida victory could be the final straw.
“All I can say is Tubby is a terrific coach,” Donovan said. “He’s done a great job with his team. They’re very talented, they’re very gifted, and they have got a lot of experience.
“They have played in a very, very difficult conference.”
The same can’t be said for the Southeastern Conference, which landed only three teams in the NCAA Tournament.
But that in no way diminishes Smith’s respect for the Gators and his familiar counterpart.
“Florida’s a program that really wasn’t noted for its basketball, and he’s taken it to unbelievable heights,” Smith said.
“At this point in time, if you’re going up against him, you know your team has probably risen to that level of good play, because his teams are here [in the NCAA Tournament] on a regular basis.”