This is the wildest time of the year for Florida coach Billy Donovan and his staff. Fresh off a whirlwind SEC tournament in Nashville and the opening week of March Madness in Austin, Texas, the Gators moved their entire operation to a downtown Dallas hotel Monday.
The next task is preparing for a Sweet 16 game against Florida Gulf Coast and a potential Sunday showdown with Kansas or Michigan for a spot in the Final Four.
“It’s hectic, man, but I like it,” assistant coach Matt McCall said. “Your life’s exciting right now. Late nights and early mornings, but it’s fun.”
The real thrills start again Friday when third-seeded Florida takes on No. 15 seed FGCU, one of the most surprising teams in NCAA tournament history, at Cowboys Stadium (9:57 p.m., TBS). The South region champion will be crowned Sunday and sent on to the Final Four in Atlanta.
Donovan, 47, deservedly gets the bulk of the credit for leading the Gators (28-7) this far, but he benefits from countless assists. His three understudies — John Pelphrey, Rashon Burno and McCall — are three bright minds trained to think almost exactly like he does.
“I’ve got a lot of trust and confidence in our staff, and they really work hard,” Donovan said. “Those three guys will be basically locked in a room until the time we play, watching and breaking down film.”
One of the assistants’ main duties is scouting opponents, which is vital in the tournament’s short turnarounds. Immediately after selections were announced on March 17, they began analyzing footage of first-round opponent Northwestern State, as well as second-round possibilities UCLA and Minnesota.
Burno, 35, scouted until 4 a.m. before falling asleep on the couch in his office. His reconnaissance had to be ready for the players Monday. McCall (Minnesota) and Pelphrey (UCLA) spent the entire week assembling their reports so UF could maximize its one day of practice between games.
“That’s the life,” Burno said. “You lock in completely.”
Throughout last week, video coordinator Oliver Winterbone and his crew chopped up material on foes the Gators could see next so Pelphrey could begin studying FGCU (26-10) immediately. Burno and McCall are responsible for the next round.
Pelphrey, 44, is the elder of this group in many ways, having previously been a head coach for nine years at South Alabama and Arkansas. Furthermore, this is his 10th season under Donovan, and he played for him when Donovan was a Kentucky assistant.
When Arkansas fired Pelphrey in 2011, he wrestled with the idea of an assistant position until he got a call from Donovan.
“Working for Billy has been easy,” he said. “This is probably the only job in America I would have taken as an assistant. It’s been a real blessing.
“I’m still as passionate about the game as I’ve ever been and I do want to be a head coach, but the clock’s not running. It’s very enjoyable going to work every day.”
McCall, 31, could be nearing a new job, too. He is exceptional at advance scouting, has a perfect personality for recruiting and absorbed a wealth of knowledge in a brief career that began as a UF student manager in 2002. He was director of basketball operations during the 2006-07 championship season.
He held various roles on Donovan’s support staff until 2008, when Florida Atlantic’s Mike Jarvis hired him as an assistant coach. Donovan brought him back to UF prior to last season.
“I’ve been blessed to be around all these guys,” said McCall, who also worked with Anthony Grant, Larry Shyatt and Rob Lanier. “When I’m fortunate enough to become a head coach, I’ll take a little bit from every one of them.”
How soon will that be? UCLA, Minnesota, Southern Cal and Northwestern have vacancies, which could cause a chain reaction of openings throughout the country.
“I don’t know if there’s a time when you say, ‘I’m ready, this is my time,’” McCall said.“It depends on the situation, depends on the job. I’ve had a lot of experience and been around a lot of great coaches, so am I ready to be a head coach? Yeah. But do I have a lot more to learn? Absolutely.”
None of that is prevalent in his mind right now. Except for diversions like recruiting and practices, he is obsessed with an Elite Eight possibility, hoping to extend this season for one more crazy week.