GAINESVILLE — It has been seven years since John Pelphrey walked the sidelines at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.
The last time he was here, he was an assistant under Billy Donovan, spending six seasons helping build the Gators into a national contender in basketball. He and Donovan remain close friends.
But all that will have to be put aside this afternoon.
Pelphrey will once again walk the sideline at the O'Dome, but the second-year Arkansas coach is bringing in his Razorbacks for a 2 p.m. tipoff. Arkansas has two early season SEC losses and is in search of its first conference win, but Pelphrey said that doesn't negate the emotional ties he will feel with his return.
"There's always emotion into it when you're pretty familiar with the place you've been and (playing against) somebody you care about deeply," said Pelphrey, 40. "I have nothing but great memories at Florida. I was there six years, and I spent 10 years working for (Donovan). I was part of that basketball program, and we loved it. It was a special, special time in our lives. This will really be my first time in the O'Connell Center since I left. And there's a lot of things about Gainesville that will always be special for me and my family."
Pelphrey was a UF assistant from 1997 to 2002, coming over from Marshall with Donovan where they were together for two seasons. The two first connected at Kentucky in 1990 when Donovan was an assistant under Rick Pitino, and Pelphrey was a sophomore forward for the Wildcats.
This is actually the third time Donovan and Pelphrey have met; Florida beat South Alabama 76-50 in the 2006 NCAA Tournament (Pelphrey's first head coaching job) and the Gators lost 80-61 at Arkansas last season. But the return to Gainesville adds another element to the reunion.
"I think anytime you come into a place, leading up to it whether you're playing against a close friend or someone you've worked with or a school that you've coached at, I think there's always a different feeling," Donovan said. "But I've often felt like when the game gets started and you're going, some of that stuff goes by. … When the game starts, you're just playing."
With nonconference wins over top-10 teams Texas and Oklahoma, Arkansas seemed poised to be a force in the SEC, but the Razorbacks have struggled in their past two games. Pelphrey said it won't be easy to right the ship against the Gators.
"I think right now we're looking to get on track in the SEC a little bit," Pelphrey said. "We're trying to play some good basketball and on the other side of it, obviously they (Florida) are playing some good basketball. … On the personnel side, those guys have tremendous, tremendous skill level with shooting, passing and spacing. And they can really, really put a lot of pressure on you. It's fun to watch those guys play. I don't know how much fun I'll have Saturday watching them play. But they play the game the right way, and that's no surprise, that's what Billy's teams do."
The Gators' biggest concern, as it has been all season, is rebounding. They face a team that boasts a plus-7.3 margin, led by junior forward Michael Washington, who is averaging 10, plus 17.1 points. He is the only player in the SEC averaging a double double.
"Definitely that will be a big issue," UF sophomore guard Nick Calathes said. "I think it killed us against them last year, although I think they were a lot bigger. They are a really good team, and we are definitely going to have to rebound and we have to be tough. They handed it to us at Arkansas, so we have to protect our homecourt."
Both Donovan and Pelphrey insist that once the ball is tipped, the friendship and emotion will be put aside for 40 minutes — no matter how difficult.
"He's still somebody that I care about deeply and obviously when you do that, it isn't easy," Pelphrey said. "At the end of the day, we're both going to try to win a basketball game and all that stuff is going to be forgotten about."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.