GAINESVILLE — In 15 seasons as Florida's head basketball coach, Billy Donovan has been around when it was impossible to fill seats in the O'Connell Center and when his team was the hottest ticket in town — during two national championship runs.
And he vividly remembers the days when getting his Gators on TV was a major undertaking. That's one of the many reasons you won't hear one complaint from him about the hype surrounding his program today when ESPN's College GameDay originates from Gainesville — a prelude to the sold-out SEC showdown with No. 10 Kentucky at 9 p.m.
"When I came here 15 years ago, there was such a demand to get your team on TV, to get that exposure," Donovan said. "And I think now with the TV package, with the SEC and ESPN, with CBS and ESPN2, there's so much exposure, there are so many games on TV now.
"But I do think that environment, where ESPN is selecting a game they want to highlight for the weekend, is a good thing. … It creates enthusiasm, it creates excitement, it creates energy on campus. I think all those things are always a positive."
Actually, it's not like this game needs the hype. Its importance speaks for itself.
Florida is a game and a half up on the Wildcats in the SEC East race — tonight's being the first of two meetings left this season.
The teams enter tonight's game under different circumstances. Florida is coming off an overtime home win over Vanderbilt and has won four of its past five. Kentucky is playing for the first time since its last-second 71-69 loss to Ole Miss. The Wildcats are 2-2 in their past four games and will close out a stretch of four road games in their past five.
"It's a bounce-back game, and you better bounce back, and you're going to do it against another team, and they're not going to go away," Kentucky coach John Calipari said in explaining why this is a good game for his team to play now.
"So, you're going to have to play the entire 40 minutes, and we have to find out at some point this year when will we do it, because we haven't done it yet. We've played for 30 minutes and 32 minutes; we've not been close to a 40-minute game. So, this one, you better challenge yourself. You make a basket, you better not go back and say now I'm good and they score quickly. If you do that, you have no chance of winning the game."
The game will feature Florida sophomore guard Kenny Boynton and Kentucky freshman guard Brandon Knight, who played in summer leagues and AAU teams together growing up.
Knight, who was heavily recruited by Florida, said he's approaching this as any other game.
"We are just trying to go out and do what we have been doing in the SEC," said Knight, who is averaging 17.2 points per game. "The only thing I can say, and I will say, is all I am trying to do is get wins. You know, I am focusing on the game plan and the things that we are going to have to deal with."
For a Florida team that has been wildly inconsistent at times, tonight's game is a prime opportunity to build momentum, and confidence, heading into the final stretch of the regular season. But at the same time, the players said, it must be kept in perspective.
"Everyone thinks they are very good," senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "Some people think we're very good. It doesn't really matter what other people think. We're just going to focus on them and what we have to do to win that game.
"And it's definitely an important game. Them being Kentucky and us being Florida, it's always fun to play them. The rivalry is always there."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]