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Donovan, Florida players face big decisions

You've got to think the key players from Florida's back-to-back national championship teams are going to reach for the money this time. The biggest question the Gators face going into the offseason: will their coach do the same thing?

The Billy Donovan-to-Kentucky rumors were everywhere during the Final Four. And now that Florida's repeat title is in the books, the pursuit of the former Rick Pitino assistant is expected to start quickly.

"I'm going to enjoy this moment right now. It's about this game," Donovan said in the early-morning hours Tuesday, shortly after Florida's 84-75 win over Ohio State in the Georgia Dome. "I think all that stuff will be addressed. Now's not the time, as it wasn't when it got asked over the last week. It's all about these kids, our program and what happened."

Kentucky, of course, is desperate to bring in Donovan to replace Tubby Smith and satisfy the insatiable demands of a fan base that has not enjoyed a title since 1998. Meanwhile, Donovan has gone to three in the last eight years at Florida (losing the 2000 final to Michigan State and winning the last two).

Only 41, Donovan came to Florida in 1996 when it was a downtrodden program in the SEC. He's currently making $1.8 million at Florida and Kentucky is rumored to be ready to give him upwards of $3 million. Donovan is expected to meet with Kentucky soon, perhaps before his family leaves Saturday for a vacation in the Dominican Republic. During Final Four weekend, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the focus on his situation.

Longtime SEC observers say Donovan doesn't need the hassle of the basketball-crazed masses of Kentucky. At Florida, where football is far bigger than at Kentucky, there is a bit of a respite in the summer and fall that allows Donovan to step back and get his team focused for a new season. And Florida media have already started the talk of how Donovan's legacy would be hopelessly tarnished if he left the Gators for a rival SEC school.

"The program's bigger than anybody," Donovan said. "I've never, ever looked at my legacy or how it would impact me, and I said this last year. It's more about the program. There are a lot of great, great coaches that probably don't get the opportunity that I've been afforded, that never get to this point, that probably deserve a lot more attention and credit than I do. I've never really worried about what my legacy's going to be."

Donovan's players etched their legacy into history Monday night, becoming the first repeat champion since the Duke teams of 1991 and '92. The first starting lineup ever to repeat, the Gators' four juniors have decisions about their future just like their coach.

Forward Corey Brewer is easily the most likely player to go pro. His stock rose dramatically this year and his father is ill so the family is by far the most in need of NBA money. But in the locker room after Monday's game, Brewer even floated the possibility of this team going for a three-peat.

"If one of us comes back, we all will," Brewer said.
"Oh yeah, it's a possibility," added Al Horford.

The fathers of Horford and Taurean Green, former NBA players Tito Horford and Sidney Green, both said here Monday night they would prefer their sons return to school. Joakim Noah's parents told Florida reporters they will assess their son's situation; Noah probably would have been the first or second pick in last year's NBA draft but is probably no better than a top-15 choice this time.

Donovan paid tribute to his players' will to win after their latest triumph.

"The story that happened this year is so right for college basketball and it's so right for young players," he said. "I'm not sitting there saying that every single player should come back to school and should never, ever leave early. I'm not saying that. But I feel bad for kids that are pushed out or given bad advice or wrong information, and people make comments about draft status and stock.

"If [Ohio State freshman] Greg Oden is out there and really in his heart he wants to go back to Ohio State, he should do what he wants to do. . . . Look at what happened with Brewer, Noah, Horford, Taurean Green, Florida, it all worked out for them. I'm hoping these kids can be a source of inspiration, strength, for some of these kids that say, 'I really don't want to go, but I'm worried about what's going to happen.' "

Brewer said he was overcome by emotion after this title, that he felt himself crying when the annual "One Shining Moment" montage was played on the stadium video screens after the game. Then he said he couldn't imagine being with another coach -- and couldn't imagine Donovan leaving Florida.

"Why would he go to Kentucky?" said a smiling Brewer. "When's the last time they won a national championship?"

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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