The heart of the matter
Florida's chemistry will topple Buckeyes for title
Posted: Monday April 2, 2007 9:33AM; Updated: Monday April 2, 2007 9:33AM
When we gathered at the Sports Illustrated offices in New York back in October to map out our college basketball preseason issue, I was as insistent as anyone that we select Kansas, not Florida, as our preseason No. 1 team. It's only now, with the convenient benefit of hindsight, that I realize looking back that my heart wasn't really in it.
Fast forward to Selection Sunday. Once again, I looked for a team other than Florida to pick. Once again, I went with Kansas. Once again, my heart wasn't in it. I know that now.
All season long, even though it was obvious Florida was the most talented, the most experienced, the deepest and the best-coached team in America, many folks like myself looked for reasons to believe someone else was going to win it all. The major reason was historical precedent: Just one team, the 1991-92 Duke squad, had repeated as national champ since John Wooden worked the sidelines in Westwood. That is by far the fewest number of repeat champs in all the major sports. Surely, the Gators would crumble when put up against that kind of history. Surely, some other team would get hot and knock them off.
Well, it's long past time to stop denying the obvious. Florida is the best team in the country -- by far -- and it will prove it tonight with a convincing victory over Ohio State.
Part of my reticence to declare this earlier was my experience as a senior at Duke the year the Blue Devils pulled off their repeat. My up close and personal recollections led me to believe that that Duke team was better than this Florida squad. After all, the Blue Devils were ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll every single week of that season. They lost just two games -- at Wake Forest and at North Carolina -- and both came down to the last possession. They rolled through the ACC tournament, beating the Tar Heels by 20 points in the championship game. And yet they needed Christian Laettner's miracle to get by Kentucky in the regional final before beating Michigan's Fab Five by 20 points in the final. With that as a backdrop, Florida's challenge seems incredibly daunting.
The other experience I had trouble shaking was my first-hand look at the Gators in late February, when they fell behind by 27 points at Tennessee before losing by 10 -- their third loss in four games. It wasn't the fact that Florida lost in Knoxville that bothered me. It was the fact that they were coming off an embarrassing loss at LSU, which was playing without Glen Davis, and got completely shredded by the Volunteers. When I asked several players afterward what the problem was, I got too many different answers. I also remember Florida assistant Donnie Jones saying to me, "We could use some neutral-court games." I didn't take that as a good sign.
But now, looking back, it is another Florida moment I witnessed in person this season that tells the larger, more important story. It occurred over Thanksgiving weekend in Las Vegas. Everyone remembers the classic overtime loss Florida suffered at the hands of Kansas that weekend, but each team played another opponent the night before. Florida's foe was a pretty good Western Kentucky team. With about five minutes remaining in a 33-point thrashing of the Hilltoppers, the Gators had a two-on-none breakaway. Taurean Green had the ball, but just as he was about to go in for the winning layup, he turned around and scooped the ball to Corey Brewer, who slammed it home. It struck me instantly that this was a group of guys who really, really like each other. That type of chemistry cannot be manufactured by any coach, and a team can't win a national championship, much less two in a row, without it.
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