Mentor vs. Mentee: Pitino and Donovan square off in the Elite Eight

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The West Region final is a sportswriter’s dream.

The story lines are endless: How did Louisville turn their season around? For that matter, how did Florida? Can Billy Donovan get back to the Final Four after winning back-to-back titles? Can Rick Pitino get back to his first Final Four since 2005 and just his second in the last 15 years? Is a Kentucky-Louisville national semifinal in the works? Kentucky-Florida wouldn’t be bad either.

But without a doubt, the story line that everyone is going to be writing about is the relationship between Pitino and Donovan. It isn’t a secret that Pitino has been Donovan’s mentor since Donovan played for Pitino at Providence. What isn’t as well-known is why they are so close.

Jeff Eisenberg, who got a jump on the competition with this story on Wednesday, explains:

When Providence plucked Pitino from the New York Knicks staff in 1985 to rebuild its floundering program, the Friars had finished last or next-to-last in the powerful Big East the previous six seasons. Longtime coach Joe Mullaney hadn’t managed to land Big East caliber recruits or inspire sufficient work ethic in his players during the twilight of his career.

Donovan’s own career had stagnated under Mullaney because he didn’t fit well into the coach’s half-court-oriented style. A creative passer and gifted scorer in an up-tempo system at St. Agnes Cathedral High on Long Island, Donovan grew frustrated when he couldn’t crack Mullaney’s rotation or even contribute much in practice, leading to his weight ballooning to nearly 200 pounds.

The combination of the lack of playing time and the lack of interest from coaches his family called seeking a transfer convinced Donovan he needed to work harder. As a result, Donovan eagerly accepted Pitino’s offer of a clean slate in return for him shedding his excess weight by the start of practice in the fall.

The result was a Final Four for the Friars in 1987, an achievement that skyrocketed Pitino’s value as a head coach. To return the favor, Pitino hired Donovan as a graduate assistant when he got the head coaching job at Kentucky, pushing for Marshall and then for Florida to hire “Billy the Kid”.

As they say, the rest is history.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.