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Former shooting stars Billy Donovan, Steve Alford meet as coaches

UCLA coach Steve Alford and Florida coach Billy

UCLA coach Steve Alford and Florida coach Billy Donovan are seen in this AP composite. Credit: AP / Julie Jacobson, AP / Phelan M. Ebenhack

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - If not entirely irrelevant, it at least is outdated to wonder whether Billy Donovan or Steve Alford -- two of the purest shooters in college basketball history -- would win in a game of H-O-R-S-E today.

They came mighty close to crossing paths at their playing peaks in the 1987 Final Four, before Donovan's Providence team lost to Syracuse a game short of the final, won by Alford and Indiana.

On Thursday night, 27 years later, it is a different duel in the NCAA South Regional. Donovan, the Rockville Centre native in his 18th year as architect of Florida's hoops prominence, will send his top-seeded Gators against Alford, another coaching veteran, in his first season at UCLA.

"We're the same era as players,'' Alford said. "I remember him, but we didn't play against each other at all, at the collegiate level or beyond, and really haven't met up as coaches, either.''

Speaking of the 1986-87 season, Donovan said, "[Alford] had an unbelievable year.'' He averaged 22 points as a senior, while Donovan scored 20.6. "And he was great with their motion offense, just a tremendous shooter, great free-throw shooter, certainly a catalyst to that team.''

But this is now. Based on results, Donovan's chore with Florida (34-2) appears to center around curtailing a UCLA offense featuring the rare sight of a 6-9 guard.

Sophomore Kyle Anderson starred at St. Anthony of Jersey City. "He is not just 6-9, but has a wingspan of 7-3,'' Alford said. "We're talking about a long -- very, very long -- big point guard.

"He's our leading rebounder. He's got the most assists on the team. He's shooting very well, 50 percent at three. And really, what's meant the most to this team is that his ability to pass the ball has become contagious.''

UCLA (28-8) averages 81.5 points, but that's where Florida's swarming, relentless defense (57.5) comes in. "If the game's in the 50s,'' Alford said, "that's probably not favoring UCLA.''

Donovan is operating with a 28-game winning streak and a battle-tested team: senior forward Casey Prather, shooting better than 60 percent; senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, known to take over games almost single-handedly; senior role player Will Yeguete, whom Donovan calls "not a headline guy'' but a fellow who "impacts winning.''

Alford, after years coaching Division III Manchester College, Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico, thrills at "walking by the John Wooden statue every day'' on the UCLA campus. Alford said Donovan "has been someplace 18 years, put his culture in . . . put the stamp on one of the premier programs.''

With two NCAA titles on his resume already, Donovan said he has learned to enjoy the process -- win or lose. But as he said, "There's no easy exit out of the NCAA Tournament. We all want to win the national championship.''

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