NEW ORLEANS — If any player epitomizes Providence's surprising surge through the NCAA basketball tournament to the Final Four, it is Billy (the Kid) Donovan.
Donovan, a 6-foot point guard, was seriously thinking of transferring to another school after his sophomore season.
He had averaged only 3.2 points and 12 minutes of playing time for Joe Mullaney and didn't seem to fit into the coach's deliberate style of play.
But Mullaney retired and was replaced by Rick Pitino, who promised that the Friars would be a full-court pressing team and one that would eventually become committed to the three-point shot.
Two years later, Donovan is the catalyst of a team that has upset Alabama and Georgetown by substantial margins in the tournament and will try to beat Syracuse today at the Superdome. Donovan is the tournament's leading scorer with 106 points, and he is also averaging 8.7 assists a game.
"I was thinking about it," Donovan said Friday in reference to possibly transferring to another school.
"But when Coach Pitino came in, he said he was going to use an upbeat style of play that I was used to in high school (St. Agnes High in Long Island, N.Y.)."
Pitino had some pointed advice for Donovan, though.
"I told him there is no reason to leave," Pitino said. "We play a four-guard system where we run and press, and you'll definitely get your minutes.
"But I also told him, 'that's not your problem.' I said, 'You're 20 pounds overweight, you shoot a push shot, don't change your speeds and basically you have to work at a different style of play.' "
So Donovan lost weight and developed new skills during the summer at St. Agnes High, even sneaking through a window of the gym at night to work out.
His dedication was rewarded in the 1985-86 season, when he averaged 15.1 points as a junior while starting all 31 games.
Pitino laughingly recalls that there were still some skepticism about Donahue.
"A good friend at a local deli told me that Billy was nothing better than a Division III player and that I shouldn't even put him in, even if we were 30 points ahead, or 30 points behind," Pitino said.
Pitino also tried to promote Donovan with sportswriters, but to no avail.
"I started calling him 'Billy the Kid,' " Pitino said. "I must have said it 2,000 times, but nobody used it."
Now Pitino dotes on Donovan, a gym rat if there ever was one.
"Billy Donovan is your basic All-American kid," Pitino said. "The young man never swears, his hair is never out of place and he does everything the right way. He's polite and even brings flowers to my wife.
"The greatest disappointment for me this season is that he's going to graduate."
So it's a nice Cinderella story that could come to an end today for Providence. Not only has Syracuse beaten Providence twice in the regular season, but the Orangemen have won 15 straight from the Friars.
Pitino and Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim discount previous results, however. Indeed, Providence extended Syracuse earlier before losing by scores of 89-85 and 90-81.
"The last thing Providence is thinking about is that they lost to us twice," Boeheim said. "What they are thinking about is that they just dominated two of the best teams in the country--Alabama and Georgetown.
"I think Providence is the hottest team in the country right now. Georgetown beat Providence twice during the regular season (losing once), but Georgetown isn't playing anymore."
Nonetheless, in Syracuse's two meetings with Providence, Donovan totaled 29 points, making 10 of 30 shots. He also had 7 turnovers in one game.
But Providence has since benefited from the return of freshman guard Carlton Screen, who was injured. Now Screen has been able to spell Donovan.
Providence, the nation's leading three-point shooting team, averaging 8.3 a game, shot down Alabama from the outside, 103-82.
But Pitino reasoned that his team didn't have an outside chance of beating Georgetown because the Hoyas had blanketed his three-point shooters in two previous games.
So the Friars went inside to such previously undistinguished players as Steve Wright, Darryl Wright--they're not related--and David Kipfer to beat the Hoyas, 88-73.
However, Syracuse poses a defensive problem with 6-10 center Rony Seikaly and 6-9 forward Derrick Coleman clogging the middle on defense. Boeheim also has quick guards, Greg Monroe and Sherman Douglas, to harass the three-point shooters.
Seikaly, who was born in Lebanon and grew up in Greece, has emerged as a dominant force in the tournament. He is averaging 26 points and 9.2 rebounds.
"I think Seikaly is one of the premier centers in the country," Pitino said. "He's a a tremendous shot blocker and he now has great moves. What you have to do with him is get him away away from the basket and push him out about four or five feet."
Easier said than done.
But over-achieving has been Providence's personality since the tournament started. Now the question is can the Friars do it once more, or even twice?
Final Four Notes Today's game will begin at 12:42 p.m. PST and will be televised by Channel 2. The Indiana-Nevada Las Vegas semifinal game will start about 30 minutes after the Providence-Syracuse matchup. . . . Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim and Providence Coach Rick Pitino are close friends. Pitino was Boeheim's assistant for two years in the late '70s. Boeheim urged Pitino to take the job while Pitino was on his honeymoon. "My wife hasn't talked to Jim since," Pitino said jokingly. . . . Syracuse center Rony Seikaly on Providence: "They're so disturbing. They're never going to give up. To tell you the truth, every time I've played Providence, I've felt exhausted at the end of the game. They're tough. They're overachievers. Nothing ever comes easy against them." . . . Tom Lewis, a former USC forward, who has since transferred to Pepperdine, was once on the verge of enrolling at Syracuse.