PHOENIX — Twenty-five years ago, Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino were in the midst of the greatest run in Providence College basketball history.
Pitino, the coach, and Donovan, the star point guard, took the Friars to their only Final Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament — in New Orleans.
Back then, they stood together in that tournament run. Today, they are standing in each other's way.
Donovan's Gators and Pitino's Cardinals meet in the NCAA West Region final for the right to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans.
Donovan and Pitino have met six times before but never with so much on the line.
"I've said this, outside of my parents, he's been the most influential person in my life," Donovan said Friday. "I'm very thankful for the opportunities he's provided me, as a player, as a coach. … But I do think the game is really about the players that are playing in the game that are going to be competing. But both teams have earned the right to play. And the competition part of it will never, ever get in the way with me of our relationship, ever."
Donovan, 46, is 0-6 in matchups against Pitino: 0-2 at Marshall, 0-2 in UF vs. Kentucky games, and 0-2 vs. Louisville. Pitino said the numbers are skewed a bit.
"When you're coaching at Marshall and you have much better talent, and I'm never going to (play at) Marshall and he's coming to (play at) Kentucky, you don't expect to win most of the time," Pitino, 59, said. "So you can never look at those things because he was at a tremendous disadvantage. If we had the same type of talent, then it would be a different situation."
Florida and Louisville players say the sentiment between the coaches is heartwarming, but it will have no bearing on what happens on the court.
"They both obviously respect each other," UF freshman guard Bradley Beal said. "But I think they probably won't make the game about them so much as about both teams. It's probably going to come down to how we play and how the other team plays, not too much about them coaching against each other."
The teams are similar in many ways. Both are guard-oriented, uptempo style teams. But the players said don't expect to see mirror images.
"Florida has different sets than us," Louisville guard Peyton Siva said. "But they like to get up and down. Coach P coached (Donovan) and he worked under Coach P, so you're going to see some similar sets. But it's a lot different than what you expect."
In two months, Donovan, Pitino and other former players and coaches from Providence will gather to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the school's only Final Four appearance. That celebration will have to take a back seat for now. Today, something more important is on the line.
And to understand the unique nature of this relationship, just listen to Pitino talk about the potential outcome today and what it will mean to him either way.
"It's the opposite for me," he said when asked if he dreads competing against Donovan. "If we were playing school 'X' (today) and we lost, I'd be professionally very down about not going to a Final Four. But personally, I'll be very happy for Billy Donovan."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]