Florida struck gold in 1996 when 30-year-old Billy Donovan took the reins of the basketball program. It was arguably Jeremy Foley's best hire, and did the unthinkable. Donovan made a legion of football-crazy Gators care deeply about hoops — or made some of them care, anyway. He has built a program that is one of the most successful and powerful in the nation, and has done it without a hint of NCAA controversy. Billy recruits players that fit his system, guys he can mold into being good shooters and tenacious defenders.
Of course he's looking for great players, but he's mainly recruiting the right players. The player must have the correct balance between talent, potential, and system fit. He's ridden that philosophy to five Elite Eights, three Final Four appearances, and two national championships. Donovan builds through a cycle of at least two years, and relies on the mentorship of older players to impact the young guns until it's their turn to star. Only Bradley Beal has been a bona fide star as a freshman, and left after one year to become a lottery pick.
John Calipari is also one of the top coaches in the country, generating success at every stop he's made. He's taken three different teams to the Final Four — a feat made even more impressive by the fact he's only coached at three different schools. He took Memphis from the middle of the road to an overtime defeat in the Championship game. He's already won two SEC championships and two SEC Tournaments in three years at Kentucky, and, of course, won the Big Dance last season with player of the year Anthony Davis in Wildcats blue.
Calipari's philosophy is different from Donovan's, because he is always looking to get the best players, year in and year out. Since returning from the NBA, Calipari has done a fine job of coaching to his team's strengths, albeit without much choice, as three to five of his best players routinely leave for the draft (including all five starters from last season). Calipari's teams have experienced some trouble with the NCAA as well, although he has been exonerated both times.
The debate about whether Donovan or Calipari has the better system is largely about that interesting divergence of styles. Donovan tends to build over two to three years, and relies heavily on his long-term development and coaching acumen. He has had success with that formula the past couple of years, with two straight Elite Eight berths, and high hopes for another Final Four this season.
But the philosophy can also lend itself to swoons, exemplified by two years of NIT berths after winning two national championships in a row — the only time such a reversal of fortune has happened. Florida also was dealt early upset losses in the NCAA Tournament in each of the five years following their NCAA Tournament final appearance in 2000, failing to make the Sweet Sixteen each of those seasons. As mentioned, Beal was an outlier for Donovan, a top-five recruit who starred and then left for the NBA. Donovan has only signed five top-20 recruits in the past six years.
Calipari relentlessly seeks the top high school talent each year — and can promise immediate playing time, because last year's starters left! Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the No. 1 and No. 4 recruits of the 2011 class, respectively, following in the footsteps of previous top-five recruits Brandon Knight, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, and Derrick Rose. Nerlens Noel was the No. 1 recruit in last year's class, and might have been a surefire No. 1 pick if not for the gruesome knee injury he suffered; now, he's probably no worse than a top-10 selection.
The current crop of Kentucky recruits features five of the top 18 prospects in 2013's class (Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee), while Florida has inked two (Kasey Hill and Chris Young) of them. While having two of the top 20 recruits is a nice and surprising haul for Billy D, it's almost par for the course for Calipari — he's poised to have one of the greatest recruiting classes ever in 2013, and it feels like old hat.
What are the negatives for each philosophy? Well, for Donovan, if multiple players don't pan out or prove difficult to coach, they're likely to drag the program down for a stretch. Since roster spots are so valuable in basketball, and Donovan prefers to run seven or eight players out each game, misses in recruiting can become hard to overcome.
What can be just as damaging to achieving championship success is if a player is simply "good enough." Good enough to start, good enough to compete at a high level, and good enough to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, but not the level of great that is required to win championships. (Erving Walker is a perfect example of this.) This type of player also makes recruiting potentially great players difficult, since top recruits nowadays reject the notion of paying their dues behind or even alongside the older player, because there's little reason to do so. The NBA's one-and-done rule means the top recruits need only bide their time in college, and why do that on the bench or splitting time and/or stats if you don't have to?
Calipari has embraced the one-and-done rule, openly taking the top players and providing his program as a stopover to the NBA. Calipari has coached six one-and-done players at Kentucky in three seasons, while Donovan has only coached one, Beal, since Donnell Harvey. To frame the amount of time a player can end up spending in college, remember that Kenny Boynton was in the same recruiting class as John Wall, now in his third NBA season. It feels like forever ago that Kentucky was doing the John Wall.
But Calipari has the unenviable task of molding some of the game's biggest egos into a cohesive unit that will put aside a me-first attitude in order to achieve greatness as a team. When he does that well and the players are great, Kentucky wins, and usually at a championship level. When it goes wrong, it can go very wrong, as evidenced by this year's team, which still needs multiple wins to ensure an NCAA Tournament berth. Even before Noel's injury, this year's team struggled in an average SEC field (losing to Texas A&M at home), and it has suffered crushing defeats (to Tennessee and Georgia) in his absence. There are no older players to pick up the slack and help the young guys along. But never fear, because most of this class will go away next year to make room for the next crop of blue-chippers.
At their best, Florida under Billy Donovan is fast, deep, efficient on offense, tough on defense, and experienced. The players have put in two or three seasons of learning and development, and they form a Gators team that is consistently a threat in the SEC and on the national landscape. Florida's best teams trend towards an experienced core of older players with an infusion of top young talent.
At their best, Kentucky under John Calipari is young, talented, athletic, and motivated. The players come in knowing they are among the best in the nation, and play in a system and with a swagger that allows them to thrive. Kentucky's best teams trend towards an incredibly talented core of young players with an infusion of experienced, battle-hardened upperclassmen.
Which would you rather have?