Billy Donovan hasn't left Florida for the NBA in the form of the Oklahoma City Thunder's head coaching position yet. He hasn't even physically left Florida to see Oklahoma City, as far as anyone knows — and one would expect a man whose meticulousness apparently makes him simpatico with Thunder general manager Sam Presti to take the steps of seeing the Thunder's physical infrastructure with his own eyes and meeting his potential co-workers and charges before making a final decision.
But if Donovan does leave Florida, there's one candidate to succeed him with the Gators who should stand out above all others: Dayton's Archie Miller.
Donovan outfoxed Miller in last year's NCAA Tournament, with his smothering defense forcing Miller's Flyers to take threes and jumpers while Patric Young erased shots at the net. Scottie Wilbekin poured in 23 points, and the Gators advanced to their first Final Four since 2007 with a not-as-close-as-the-score-suggests 62-52 win.
But Miller had accomplished something few other coaches have recently done just by getting to that Elite Eight.
Since the 2010 NCAA Tournament, just 24 teams have made the Elite Eight (see sidebar); given that there have been 48 Elite Eight slots available, that shows the lack of parity among the college basketball elite. (Notably, Kentucky's five Elite Eight trips and Florida's four are first and second in the nation over that span.)
Only five of those 24 teams — Butler in 2010 and 2011, VCU in 2011, Wichita State in 2013, Dayton in 2014, and Gonzaga in 2015 — have hailed from outside "power" conferences. (Yes, I'm counting the American Athletic Conference as a "power" conference here.)
And only three coaches at or under the age of 35 have been able to steer teams to the Elite Eight this decade: Butler's Brad Stevens (33 in 2010, 34 in 2011), Dayton's Miller (35 in 2014) and VCU's Shaka Smart (33 in 2011).
Stevens put Butler and himself in both, er, elite Elite Eight clubs in 2010, and Smart joined them in 2011. Miller became the third person in it in 2014, and would've joined his two predecessors in their Final Four club had Dayton only been able to get by Florida.
Oh, and do you know who the last coach to make a Final Four before turning 36 was before Stevens?
Yes, it was Billy Donovan.
In college basketball, few tasks are more difficult than winning in the NCAA Tournament, and few commodities more precious than head coaches who can lead their teams to the sort of NCAA Tournament success that a program like Florida — with recent national titles and long sojourns in March, and fans spoiled rotten by both — demands. And nothing is more valuable than a young coach who can do that, especially at a program outside the sport's blue-blooded aristocracy: Young coaches can become middle-aged coaches, and even old ones, if they are also great coaches.
That's why Stevens is now guiding one of the NBA's flagship franchises. It's why Smart was linked to every job under the sun for years and years before finally accepting the Texas job earlier this April. It's why Donovan was regarded as the hottest coach in America on the heels of that magical run to the 2000 NCAA Tournament final, and as a candidate for the Kentucky job
And it's why Jeremy Foley's first call to find Donovan's successor should be to Archie Miller.
Miller's work in the 2013-14 season was superb: He got a Dayton team that was comprised of upperclassmen left over from now-Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory's time with the Flyers and greener recruits he landed to the Elite Eight as a No. 11 seed, making the Flyers just the sixth No. 11 to get that far into an NCAA Tournament. Dayton beat Gonzaga in the regular season and Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament — this, despite having no players over 6'10" on the roster.
But Miller's coaching job last season, in which Dayton made "only" the Round of 32, and needed to win a First Four game on its own court to do so, was even better.
Dayton had a little more height on its roster for 2014-15, but its tallest player was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA, and forced to sit out the season — and then two of its players over 6'9" were involved in a theft, and later dismissed. This left Dayton with six scholarship players, five of whom were forced to play more than 29 minutes per night, and no players over 6'6".
Not only did Dayton not crater — something that would have been beyond understandable, given the circumstances — the Flyers improved their record from 2013-14, moved up one spot in KenPom (from No. 38 to No. 37), and both made the NCAA Tournament and won two games in it for a second straight year.
Yes, Miller did this largely against the Atlantic 10 — but especially given Donovan's struggles with a limited roster in 2014-15, what Miller did with personnel limitations is thoroughly impressive, and an immediate strong selling point to Florida fans.
The issues for Florida will be related to pulling him from Dayton. Miller signed a contract extension with Dayton in March, his second in as many years, and now is set to throw on Flyer red ties through the 2021-22 season, and the Flyers have one of the few mid-major programs in the country where support is never an issue. Leaving that secure position for Florida, where support can wax and wane, as basketball is typically a close second to football at best, would not be an easy decision.
But Miller can look to his own family tree for a compelling reason to do so. Sean Miller, Archie's elder brother, left a prime spot at Xavier to become the head coach of Arizona in 2009. Since a rocky first season, the elder Miller's Wildcats have won 30 games three times, and reached the last two Elite Eights; he's on the short list of coaches without a Final Four or national championship expected to break through to those levels soon.
Archie Miller was an assistant on Sean Miller's first two Arizona staffs. Certainly, he knows the benefits of being at a big school well.
And, frankly, the younger Miller is almost certainly ultimately destined for a bigger job than the one he currently has, whether at Florida or somewhere else. Dayton's trip to the Elite Eight in 2014 was also its first NCAA Tournament run beyond the Sweet Sixteen since 1984, the year prior to the beginning of the tournament's 64-team era. If he wants to compete for national titles, Dayton is unlikely to be his final stop — and few jobs could give him a better opportunity to do so than Florida, where Donovan made as many Final Fours as any other program this century.
Miller, an N.C. State alumnus who was born and raised in Pennsylvania, has no real ties to Florida. But neither did Donovan, a native New Yorker who went to Providence, reunited with his college coach Rick Pitino after a brief NBA career, and was hired by Foley from Marshall in 1996. And Florida doesn't need Donovan's successor to have ties to the state nearly as much as it needs that person to be a damn good basketball coach.
We don't have a huge sample size with Miller, but he's spent four years at Dayton, and Donovan had spent just two at Marshall. And he ticks off virtually every other box when imagining Foley's criteria for the Gators' next coach.
I think Miller should be Florida's next coach. And I think he could be, too.