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Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
4/04/2006 07:46:00 AM

The End, Or Only Act I? (A 2006-07 Top 10)

Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah set a new NCAA tournament record for blocks with 29, including six in the title game.
John W. McDonough/SI

INDIANAPOLIS -- As the clock neared midnight on Monday, Florida's Joakim Noah was still partying with the level of passion that had fueled his brilliant rise from freshman nobody to, as a sophomore, the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament.

The Ponytailed One was at first sprawled on the floor near center court under a mob of teammates; then he was up, bounding toward his school's student section, then maniacally screaming and Gator-chomping at them from atop a press-row table. Before bolting into the stands to hug his famed father, Yannick, and his mother and sister, Joakim did the unthinkable and heaved his sweaty, No. 13 jersey into the students' orange-and-blue mob. Tangible mementos, presumably, aren't important when one's identity is based on the intangible of emotion. With a wild grin on his face, Noah was deeply feeling Florida's first national championship. (Must-see pictures of the title game)

The question now is does he truly want to feel this for an encore? Before taking the stage at midcourt, Noah stopped to tell a handful of reporters, "I love this! How can I not do this again?" Is this euphoria so enticing that the chase for a repeat championship as a junior trumps being a top-three pick in June's NBA Draft? "It's like you can't even feel your legs; it's like you're eating the best food in the world, like everything tastes good, everything smells good," he said. And then he added, for emphasis, before strutting away, "It's better than sex!"

On Noah's decision -- which will be made later this month, in a less orgasmic setting, sans the streamers, confetti and commemorative Ts -- hinges the crest of college basketball's rankings for 2006-07. If he stays in Gainesville, and fellow Gator pro prospects Al Horford and Corey Brewer follow suit, Florida would be the unanimous preseason top dog -- and the first title-game participant since Arizona in 1997 to bring its entire starting lineup back intact.

Conventional wisdom and recent history suggest that all the good Monday Nighters turn pro and their teams rebuild, but '06-07 could be a departure from the norm. The Gators and runner-up UCLA realistically may retain their super-sophs and remain heavyweights. If '05-06 was stacked with surprises -- the rise of the mid-majors, the early departures of the No. 1 seeds, and a non-guard-dominated champ -- why can't '06-07 be the Season The Kids Actually Stuck Around?

Minutes after Noah and his teammates watched an RCA Dome video-board display CBS' One Shining Moment montage -- the final frames of which were a roof-camera looking down on him, atop that press-row table -- he was sitting with his legs dangling off the stage. In response to another inevitable inquiry about his future, Noah made a broad swoop with his hands toward the celebration that was unfurling in front of him, and said "The NBA can't do this!"

And so, unless we receive different news from Noah, the Gators should begin next season the same way they ended this one: at No. 1.

Now, for the rest of the top 10 -- a very similar version of which appears in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated. (We're operating with a few educated guesses on early entrants to the NBA Draft: UConn's Rudy Gay, Texas' LaMarcus Aldridge, LSU's Tyrus Thomas and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison.)

2. North Carolina:
The Baby Heels were ahead of schedule this season, finishing second in the ACC on the shoulders of "Psycho T" -- national freshman of the year Tyler Hansbrough. He'll be joined in the fall by the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, which includes the top-ranked high school point guard (Tywon Lawson), shooting guard (Wayne Ellington) and power forward (Brandan Wright). If that trio assimilates into coach Roy Williams' system as speedily as Hansbrough did, UNC will be scary.

3. UCLA:
Westwood's fearless defenders will gain some offensive punch with the return of swingman Josh Shipp, who was the Bruins' most dangerous scorer before missing most of the season with a hip injury. If point guard Jordan Farmar eschews the draft to team up with Shipp, two-guard Arron Afflalo and power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, UCLA will have the best 1 through 4 quartet in the nation.

In a somber Bruins locker room after Monday night's loss, Afflalo indicated that he didn't expect any defections. "We lost some pieces this year in [seniors] Cedric [Bozeman] and Ryan [Hollins], but we've got our two leading scorers [himself and Farmar] coming back, our leading rebounder [Mbah a Moute], and Josh will be back, so we should be good," he said. "We're very fortunate to have gone through this this year, and have the potential to come back [to the title game] next year."

4. Memphis:
The fastest-paced, most efficient team in Conference USA returns every key player other than Rodney Carney. With athletes like Darius Washington Jr., Antonio Anderson and Shawne Williams running the Tigers' high-scoring show, another 30-win season and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament are likely. The rest of the C-USA will once again be gunning for second place.

5. Kansas:
Sophomores stole the spotlight at this Final Four, and KU's clan of freshman stars -- guard Mario Chalmers, swingman Brandon Rush and elastic forward Julian Wright -- could make a similar push in '07. But first they'll need to overcome their school's recent first-round NCAA woes (the Bucknell-Bradley curse). Will an even more beefed-up backcourt -- after the addition of Chicago stud Sherron Collins, a McDonald's All-American -- make coach Bill Self consider a Villanova-esque lineup in '06-07?

6. Ohio State:
The Buckeyes' ranking all comes down to how much one believes in The Oden Factor. Will 7-foot freshman center Greg Oden carry the Buckeyes to a title, a la Carmelo Anthony, in what will probably be his only season in Columbus? Thad Matta's defending Big Ten regular-season champs will be rebuilt around the blue-chip recruiting class of Oden, his high-school teammate Mike Conley (a talented point guard), as well as shooting guard Daequan Cook and small forward David Lighty. Incumbent point Jamar Butler -- the most valuable returnee -- will help OSU's new wave handle the adjustment.

7. Georgetown:
With UConn, Villanova and West Virginia all set to lose significant pieces, the new Beasts of the Big East will reside in D.C. Upsets of No. 1-ranked Duke (in January) and No. 2-seeded Ohio State (NCAA second round) this season may foreshadow greater things for the Hoyas, who have NBA-caliber talent in forward Jeff Green and center Roy Hibbert. The 7-2 Hibbert -- whom coach John Thompson III said he needed to teach how to run when he initially arrived on campus -- is only beginning to realize his potential.

8. Texas:
Even if Aldridge makes the jump, the Horns retain an elite inside-outside tandem in guard Daniel Gibson and forward P.J. Tucker, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year. McDonald's All-American Game co-MVP Kevin Durant -- the nation's top recruit not named Oden -- is a sweet-shooting 6-9 forward who could step in and be an instant force. Fellow incoming freshman D.J. Augustin, a vaunted point-guard prospect out of Louisiana, can take ballhandling heat off Gibson and A.J. Abrams.

9. Texas A&M:
The Aggies are the perfect top 10 sleeper: On the strength of their lockdown D, they closed the season by winning nine of their final 11 games, nearly upsetting Final Four-bound LSU in the second round of the NCAAs. With guard Acie Law IV and future pro forward Joseph Jones leading the way, this seasoned squad can make a run at the Big 12 crown. A&M loses just one starter (senior Chris Walker), and sophomore guard Dominique Kirk is ready to get national recognition as a defensive stopper.

10. Southern Illinois:
If '06 was the Year of the Mid-Majors, what kind of encore will they have in store? The Salukis, who tied for second in the Missouri Valley Conference, have their top nine scorers back, including the senior backcourt of Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young, who will be gunning for their fourth -- and the school's sixth -- straight NCAA tournament appearance. Veteran squad + prior Big Dance experience + strong guardplay = dangerous in March. Blowout loss to West Virginia this year be damned.

ON THE FRINGE:
Boston College, Duke, Wisconsin, Wichita State, Pittsburgh, Hofstra, Tennessee, LSU, UConn, Washington, Arizona, Villanova, Xavier.

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4/04/2006 07:45:00 AM

The Prettiest Shot ...

(by shot, I mean photo) ... from the title game. SI's Bob Rosato behind the lens.

SI Wide
Bob Rosato/SI
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4/04/2006 07:21:00 AM

Tourney Blog Pool Is In The Books

Bradley White
Luke Winn/SI

INDIANAPOLIS -- This was the only way for it to end -- with the Blog Pool winner and the Tourney Blogger both in the front row of the RCA Dome for the national title game. Bradley White of South Bend, Ind., a grad student in biology at the Unversity of Notre Dame (shown at right), rallied to win the Blog Pool by one point after his champion (and only Final Four team), Florida, blew past UCLA. White was hooked up with a front-row spot in the Gators' student section for Monday night's game, and I left my press row seat to pay him a short visit before the tipoff.

Meanwhile, Eric Miller of Lancaster, Calif. -- the pool winner if the Bruins had cut down the nets -- was gracious in defeat, sending in a concession e-mail of sorts at 12:20 a.m. Tuesday. "Thanks for the good blog and running the bracket," Miller's note said. "I saw the picture of Bradley White. Congrats to him."

Congrats, indeed. And thanks to all 328 teams for playing. To all who didn't win -- especially Amit Soni's "The Cobra Kai," which finished last with just 41 points and 26 correct picks -- don't despair. We'll (hopefully) be doing this thing again next year.

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4/04/2006 03:08:00 AM

Inside Florida's Title-Game Domination

Al Horford
Forward Al Horford scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds as part of Florida's interior domination.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- UCLA had seen the looks so many times before. Point guard Jordan Farmar had called them "deer-in-the-headlights" expressions. They'd be all over the mugs of opponents -- like Final Four foe LSU -- who were taken completely out of their offense by the Bruins' swarming defensive schemes.

The problem on Monday night, in the Bruins' biggest game of the season, is that the looks were on their own faces. They turned into the frozen deer, and Florida's offense -- which scored 55 points inside the arc alone in the 73-57 win -- was a set of 200,000 candlepower headlights. "I'm sure they watched a lot of tape of what we've been doing recently," said Farmar -- and by that, he meant holding Memphis and LSU to their two lowest-scoring games of the season. But the Gators, well ... the Gators were a different -- and more disciplined -- animal. "They," Farmar said, "schemed exactly to counter it."

So what did Florida do on offense that so many of UCLA's opponents couldn't during the Bruins' 12-game win streak to reach the title game? Here are five ways the Gators thrived:

1. The Gators struck the first blow -- and actually established their offensive sets. Fellow SEC power LSU got popped in the face by UCLA on Saturday, falling behind 20-8 and never swinging back. The Bruins ran the Tigers into the ground early -- they had Glen "Big Baby" Davis huffing and puffing -- and then deflated the ball in the second half. UCLA would have no such opportunity, as it trailed 11-6 in the first four minutes and was already being subjected to "Gator Bait" chants from the Florida fans. The Bruins trailed 36-25 by halftime, and their offense was too cold to mount a comeback.

"You've gotta come out and punch them right away, because if they come out and punch you first, you've gotta fight from behind, and you can't win basketball games like that," said Florida forward Corey Brewer, who scored five of the Gators' first nine points. "So we came out and we were the aggressor."

Ben Howland's Bruins had thrived on applying intense pressure on the perimeter to take away easy looks and limit execution, but the coach said "Florida did an outstanding job of dealing with it." The Gators had 21 assists -- including eight by point guard Taurean Green -- on their 26 field goals, and turned the ball over just six times.

"The fact that we couldn't [take Florida out of its offense] was a problem," said Farmar. "We gave up almost 40 points at halftime, and that's what teams have been having at the ends of games against us the last few times."

2. Florida made deep post feeds, and neutralized UCLA's double-teams with its big men's passing abilities. "We got the ball down low and attacked them right at the rim," said assistant coach Larry Shyatt, "and that took the wind out of their sails early." The Bruins had used big-to-big double-teams out of their man-to-man to kill LSU's Davis and Tyrus Thomas, but that strategy was rendered ineffective against the Gators' Joakim Noah and Al Horford, both of whom are skilled post passers. Florida's first basket, appropriately, came on a dish from Horford to Noah. "Our bigs really find eachother well," said Shyatt, "and I think that forced UCLA to start going away from their double teams." Noah and Horford went wild, combining for 30 points. (For their full story, check Stew Mandel's postgame column.)

3. Florida pushed the pace to a level where the Bruins were uncomfortable. The Gators used Noah and Horford's ballhandling ability to break UCLA's traps, and found themselves with a host of wide-open, momentum-building slams. "Every time we tried to make a run," said Bruins guard Arron Afflalo, "it seemed like they got dunks back behind us. We're not a team that's intimidated by a dunk, but for them, it's just adding fuel to their energy." With the game turned into a high-speed, high-energy affair, "we made some mistakes getting sped up," Howland said. "We weren't finishing on the other end, and were trying to go too fast." UCLA claimed it could play a faster game, but the stats don't lie: At season's end, they were the 303rd slowest-paced team in the country.

4. The Gators found looks for their shooters in transition. Just like he did against George Mason on Saturday, two-guard Lee Humphrey -- or "Humpty Dump," as Noah calls him -- knocked down dagger 3s at the start of the second half. The difference on Monday was that Humphrey's key trey didn't come out of an offensive set. Because of the strength of Afflalo and Cedric Bozeman's defense, "We never even planned on getting Lee open in this game in the halfcourt," Shyatt said. "We knew they would take him out, because they've done a phenomenal job of defending the 3 all tournament." Humphrey proved tougher to find on the break -- and he scored the Gators' first six points of the second half on treys.

5. Florida got a superb effort out of an unflustered point guard. Farmar -- who had 18 points and four assists -- was the lone bright spot for UCLA, but his peer, the Gators' Green, may have been the game's unsung hero. Green was the guy "who orchestrated everything," said Florida head coach Billy Donovan, and Green finished with an 8:1 assist-to-turnover ratio after averaging 1.4:1 on the season. "[Green] made life so much easier for Horford and Noah because we kept running middle pick-and-roll," said Donovan. "Either he was dumping it off for a dunk, or he's throwing the ball back to Joakim where he could drive it down the lane."

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4/03/2006 08:13:00 PM

The Night Is Upon Us

One hour and 20 minutes 'til tip in Indy. A contemplative moment for UCLA's Arron Afflalo.

Courtside at the title game
Luke Winn/SI

Outside, around 7:30 p.m., security guards await the rush of fans.

Courtside at the title game
Luke Winn/SI

Florida Ave., running right into the RCA Dome.

Courtside at the title game
Luke Winn/SI

Fans, discuss the game here while it unfolds. I'll hit you back after midnight ...

UPDATE: UCLA just distributed a press release courtside that reads:

UCLA legendary head coach John Wooden was admitted to a Los Angeles-area hospital on Sunday, April 2. Wooden's hospitalization is not considered serious, and he is scheduled to be released in the next day or two.

Coach Wooden will watch tonight's game in his hospital room with his family.
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4/03/2006 08:10:00 PM

Potential Blog Pool Winner, Blogger Converge Courtside

We found Bradley White -- the dude on the right -- sitting in the front row of the Florida student section an hour before game time. He picked Florida to win it all. And he takes the Blog Pool title if it happens. (That's me on the left.)

Courtside at the title game
Luke Winn/SI
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