INDIANAPOLIS -- Six times in Monday night's national championship game -- and a record 29 times in this NCAA tournament -- Joakim Noah stretched one of his abnormally long arms into the air to send an opponent's shot caroming back to earth. With each deflection, he swatted away another truism.
No good big men in college basketball anymore? The NCAAs are a guard's tournament? Veterans win championships?
Try telling that to America's newest superstar, the lanky 6-foot-11 sophomore with the ponytail.
Try telling it to the newest national champions, the sophomore-led Florida Gators.
Better yet, try telling it to the hapless UCLA Bruins -- or the George Mason Patriots, Villanova Wildcats and Georgetown Hoyas before them.
On college basketball's grandest stage, Noah took us on a six-game trip down memory lane, reminding us just how devastating a force the gentle giant can be, even one as spindly and unconventional as the 227-pound Noah. It was only fitting he would offer his most epic performance yet -- 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting, nine rebounds and a title-game-record six blocked shots in Florida's 73-57 victory Monday night -- against the school that once boasted Hall of Famers Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.
He single-handedly rescued the dying legacy of the college big man. And by mixing in enough one-liners and sound bites with his blocks and dunks, the refreshingly free-spirited jokester ensured the adoration of millions of rebellious teenagers and hip-hop wannabes.
"Don't get mad at us," Noah said to his coach, Billy Donovan, at a postgame news conference, "because we're going to do it very, very, very big when we get back [to Gainesville].... No homework for at least four days."
Amidst the praise being heaped on him, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player attempted repeatedly to deflect credit to teammates Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey for their perimeter defense ("The bigs get a lot of credit for blocked shots, but defense is a team effort," said Noah), which is certainly valid, but Green for one wasn't having it.
"Jo' knows he's a monster," said the Florida point guard.
That Noah is only a sophomore -- one who swears he's coming back to school for at least one more season -- should send waves of fear through the national landscape, just like he did the Bruins on Monday.
The box score will show that Florida and UCLA played for 40 minutes, but the outcome was decided within the first 10. That's when Noah and his frontcourt partners in crime, 6-foot-9 Al Horford and 6-foot-8 Chris Richard, made it abundantly clear that their Bruins counterparts would not be getting anywhere near the basket. When the Gators weren't blocking shots, they were altering them. "They started to pump-fake a lot," Richard observed of the victims.
UCLA center Ryan Hollins (2 for 7 in the first half) was hopeless. Power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (0 for 4) went Mbah a Missing. By the time the Gators got up 27-17 with nine minutes left in the half, you could see the fear through LorenzoMata's face mask, particularly when he missed a point-blank layup and got it back, only to have Richard swat his put-back attempt right back at him.