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.
4/03/2007 02:35:00 AM
Florida's Place in History
After the Big Dance was over, the Gators got down one final time in Atlanta.
John W. McDonough/SI
ATLANTA -- It was Sunday, nearly 34 hours before Florida's players would make history of their own against Ohio State on the Georgia Dome floor, when they sat at a press-conference dais and were quizzed by a reporter about what they thought was the greatest college basketball team of all-time.
Always-giddy forward Corey Brewer, who would go on to be named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player on Monday after scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds, giggled and said 1996 Kentucky, partly to appease his coach, who was sitting to his right, and partly because Ron Mercer was his Tennessee homeboy. The rest of the Gators starters completed the assembly-line history quiz: Taurean Green said '93 Carolina. Al Horford said '98 Kentucky. Lee Humphrey said '72-73 UCLA. Jo Noah said he lived in France for so long as a kid that he was unqualified to reply, but added he had been a fan of '00 Florida. Donovan then chimed in with '96 Kentucky, as well as '90-91 UNLV and '70s UCLA. Strangely enough, no one said Duke's '91-92 juggernaut, the team whose feat of back-to-back national championships had stood unmatched for 15 years, until the Gators equaled it the next day with an 84-75 win over Ohio State. On the eve of immortality, perhaps they wanted to avoid the obvious comparisons.
By Monday night, though, once Florida had departed from yet another confetti-strewn court, after dominating their second straight Final Four, there was little doubt that they had placed themselves at least on par with the Blue Devils, and possibly the Bruins, whose dynasty reigned in the days of a five-round Dance rather than the 65-team NCAA tournament. So it begged re-asking the question: Gators, now who do you think is the greatest?
Donovan needed no prompting for his answer, putting the historians on notice in the opening remarks of his press conference: "I sit up here very, very humbled because I think I was fortunate enough over the last two years to coach a group of guys that has to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time. I'm not saying they were the most talented. I'm not saying they were flawless. But when you talk about the word 'team,' what that encompasses in terms of unselfishness, sacrifice, playing together, they have got to go down and be considered, in my opinion, one of the best teams to ever play."
Their coach wasn't the only one making best-ever references. Green, sitting in the locker room with clipped strands of the net tied to his championship hat, said, "We've gotta be up there. Two national championships in a row -- and what's made us so great is that we all love playing with each other. I don't think there's been a team with our chemistry and our camaraderie that played so well together."
To really appreciate this Florida team -- and realize why they're better than the double-Dukies -- you have to buy into those tired old notions of love and chemistry no matter how sappy they seem at face value. Because the Gators made it look so easy over the past two Final Fours -- destroying George Mason and UCLA in '06, then UCLA again and Ohio State in '07 -- they never gave us a Laettner moment, a single shot or image that's perfectly packaged for decades of Jumbotron montages. What they did was more big-picture. Their band of juniors gave up more than $6 million in NBA cash (that would have been the combined total of Noah, Horford and Brewer's first-year contracts in '06-07), and returned on a mission to continue playing the most stunning brand of team-ball the sport has ever seen. That will be their legacy, even if unselfishness is harder to archive in a highlight reel.
The essence of Florida's camaraderie was displayed on the celebration stage just seconds after Brewer had been announced as MOP. The Gators barely acknowledged the individual honor and instead formed a ring around the NCAA championship trophy, looking inward at each other while tens of thousands of roaring, blue-and-orange clad fans were looking down at them.
Green moved to the center and began dancing, with the others swaying around him and yelling "Aha! Aha!" in gruff voices. He said the Aha Dance was a ritual that began at the start of this year's SEC tournament as a way for the players to "get crunk" before and after games, and Green, whose nickname is "Crunk Juice," acts as the ringleader. Whereas Ohio State jogged (and Oden walked) out of its locker room and directly onto the court just minutes before the game, Florida stopped on its way to the floor to perform the dance in a back hallway of the Georgia Dome, culminating in a group yell of "Kick ass!" It was only natural, then, that they repeated it afterward -- or at least until the stage began wobbling dangerously from the gyrations of a dozen rowdy champs. "We had to do [the dance], because that's what got us here," said Green. "We stopped because we felt the stage shaking, and we thought it was going to break."
Soon after, the Gators sat in a row on the edge of that same stage, soaking in every second of One Shining Moment on the Jumbotrons. Noah had his right arm around Brewer and his left around reserve Jack Berry, and the Noble One would recline, eyes wide in an expression of pure joy, every time he or a teammate appeared in the montage. Noah mouthed most of the words, while Brewer alternated between looking teary-eyed and ecstatic. "It's unreal, One Shining Moment, it almost makes you want to cry," he said. "That's why you love college basketball, all the guys diving on the floor, everybody playing as hard as they can play just to be in this moment where we are right now."
A moment, mid-game, that exemplified Florida's balance came with 9:39 left and the Gators up 58-47. A glance at the scoreboard revealed that four of the players they had on the floor -- Brewer, Green, Humphrey and Horford -- all had 11 points each, while Noah, last year's Final Four MOP, had four. Ohio State did not enjoy the same equilibrium: At that point, Mike Conley Jr. had scored nine and Greg Oden had 17, but Jamar Butler and Othello Hunter had zero, and David Lighty had two. The final box from the title game shows six Gators with at least eight points, while just three Buckeyes surpassed that mark. Noah's constant refrain of "When we win, we all eat," had never been more evident. What other team could watch its previous year's tourney star, Noah, deliver a sub-par, eight-point and three-rebound effort on the biggest stage of the season -- and have it not be the least bit of an issue?
And what other team, for that matter, would have been able to weather such phenomenal performances from the likely No. 1 pick in the '07 NBA Draft, 7-footer Oden (25 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks) and a likely lottery-pick in '08, speedy point guard Conley (20 points, six assists, two turnovers)? It was almost as if the defending champs consciously decided to take turns snuffing out every Ohio State run. When the Buckeyes cut Florida's lead to two in the first half, at 24-22, the Gators' gunners answered with three straight treys -- one each by Humphrey, Brewer and Green -- to take an 11-point advantage. And when OSU sliced the UF lead to six in the first two minutes of the second half, it was the fearsome frontcourt that responded, with Chris Richard throwing down a follow dunk and Horford hitting a jumper from the right elbow to make the score 46-36. From then on, the game's end result was never in doubt.
Florida's roster is as eclectic as it is talented, and Donovan's biggest feat with this team was finding a way to fuse wildly different personalities into a well-oiled unit. Many previous title teams seemed a lot more alike; of the old Dukies, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were cut from a similar brat-boy mold, and there was a general attitude of cockiness that pervaded the Blue Devils' ranks. Michigan State in '00 was loaded with Flintstones who grew up in the same rough-and-tumble automotive town. Even the Buckeyes, whom the Gators beat Monday, had an inside-outside duo in Conley and Oden who had played together since the seventh grade. While Florida's Fab Five includes two small-town Tennesseans, they couldn't be more opposite, as Humphrey is the innocent rube and Brewer is the goofy kid with a wild streak. Put them together with the son of a French pop star/tennis hero (Noah), the son of a Dominican-born NBA player (Horford), and the son of another NBA player and college coach (Green), and how, exactly, was it supposed to work? How did they manage to go 33-6 and 35-5 over the past two years?
Donovan understands just how improbable this seemed three years ago. "I could sit there, recruiting a guy like Jo, and say, 'There's no way that he and Al Horford are getting along,'" he said Sunday. "You know what I mean? Just their personalities being a room together [would clash]. I think the reason it's all meshed and jelled is because of what's most important for them. The most important thing for them is competing, being part of team, and they enjoy winning."
While hordes of reporters were around Noah, Green, Horford and Brewer after the game, Richard, the team's elder statesman, stood on one side of the locker room absorbing the scene, wearing a title T-shirt thoroughly stained with soft-drink spray. When asked to explain the Gators' harmony, he said: "We all mesh. All of us are completely different, but when we get together, we put aside all of our differences for the betterment of the team. Lee is just a quiet choirboy. Taurean is a hyper water-beetle. Jo is the rebel. Al is the mentor, the most mature one. Corey's just a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. And I'm just enjoying the ride."
The ride took the Gators from being an unranked team at the start of '05-06, to a 3-seed heading into that Dance, to a national-title run where they had one close game -- beating Georgetown by four in the Sweet 16 -- but won their others by margins of 26, 22, 13, 15 and 16. The ride continued back to Gainesville for '06-07, where Noah, Horford and Brewer were lauded as heroes for bucking the trend of early departures to the NBA. It put them under a media microscope that magnified their every move and misstep in their encore run. Noah had spent much of the lead-up to the game talking about how debilitating the attention was, especially when it turned negative during their late-February swoon. "People were scrutinizing your every move," he said. "Do you know how much that weighs on you?"
On Monday, Noah was running around the court in his socks -- having already thrown his shoes into the crowd -- and singing a different tune. "People can say whatever they want, but there's no lying in championships," he said. "At the end of the day you have to say [we're] back-to-back national champions. That's serious in my book."
It's serious in any book, and in an era where most elite prospects are either one- or two-and-done, a veteran, NBA-talent-laden powerhouse like '07 Florida may never reign again. While it will be years before we know for sure how these Gators will be remembered, Noah was asked how he'd like them to be. As the de-facto mouthpiece of the team -- from his "better than sex" proclamation after the '06 title, to his "keep hatin'" rants during this Dance -- he deserved the right to weigh in.
"I want people to remember this team as one that made sacrifices," Noah said. "I want people to remember this team as one that went through so much adversity. I want people to remember this as a team that could have taken the easy way out and got paid. Instead we decided to come back, because our love for one another, and our love for winning, was more important than dollars."
The memories mattered more than the money. And with that wisdom, the Gators achieved greatness.
Florida as all time greatest team is CRAZY talk. The NCAA tourney this year was one of the weakest fields in living memory. OSU was an overrated team needing two comebacks to survive in the tourney and relying on the play of one man, Oden, for its production. Finally, UF needed crazy percentage from the 3-pt-line to win this game (its paint play stunk). Had its 3s been mere mortal, OSU wins. And was rooting for UF! '01 Duke was better.
This year's Florida team is one of the best ever. You cannot rank then ahead of Lou Alcindor or Bill Walton's UCLA teams. '96 Kentucky probably is ahead of them, too. '90 UNLV is slightly behind the Gators.
I may be the only one that feels this way, but Florida is one of the most arrogant teams I've seen in recent years. They played well throughout the tourney and they have real talent, but they could be a lot more humble and gracious. If they're not banging on their chests after every basket, or doing a little dance, then they are crying to the referee about every call that doesn't go their way. Hard to rute for a team with that little character.
To not give the Gators their proper due as one of the greastest TEAMS in NCAA history is as short sighted as the announcers that CBS had calling the game forgetting to mention that the gators were winning until the last 2 minutes. Let's count the ways they were a great TEAM. 5 1000 point scores. A 6th man that out played and out scored most of their opponents' starters (all year). They went 2 straight, (yeah that's easy; we see that evey year). Their 3 point shooting. Say what you will about leaning on their 3 pointers too much, but a great TEAM takes what the opponent gives them and uses it to beat that opponent. A losing TEAM has one dimemsion, and when that plan fails they lose. They beat every TEAM that entered the ring two years in a row. Their starting 5 did it both years. Every TEAM they beat had 2 years of tape on them, there are no excuses. When one TEAM-mate was unable to make the shot, they dished off unselfishly to the guy who could..... and did. Face it, in an era when 1 year wonders use the NCAA as a photo op on their way to the lottery, the Gators are a truely great TEAM. Ohio state was not a pretender. they deserved to be there. No other TEAM won all their games. They beat everyone EXCEPT the eventual champs. (P.S. to all the announcers who said that the 20 point blow out in december was a fluke, I guess it wasn't.)
Florida is a great team. The comparisons with past great teams are pointless. With regard to Winn's BS assertion that they're better than '91-'92 Duke, I'd like to see who Florida beat that compares to the '91 UNLV team. The Duke championship teams had to play a basically perfect game each year (UNLV in '91, Kentucky in '92) to win. And the '92 team also whipped the ballyhooed Michigan Fab 5.
Congrats to Florida. They should be the story, not all the past great teams.
I think Florida showed in the tournament that the 3 point line needs to be moved back to where the NBA line is. Too many treys are being made and the inside game is becoming irrelevant. No team is going to lose when it hits 10 of 18 from 3 point range. Ohio State went 4 for 23. That alone is 6 extra points, not to mention that a miss on a trey is an instant turnover in most cases.
Teams are making and relying on 3-pointers too much. The NCAA should do what it did to field goal kickers when they were hitting an insane percentage of field goals: They took away the tee and narrowed the goal posts. Well, you can't make the basket smaller, so move the 3 point arc back to the NBA line.
Throwing stones, throwing stones..... Yeah, I'm sure everyone (even Mr. Anonymous) put in that type of pressure-cooker situation would react with drone-like emotionless. Come on guys, these are 18-20 year old kids who just had their graetest dream come to fruition. I think a little chest popping and emotion are to be expected at a time such as this. May those with out their "offense" throw the first stone.
This was a great team. They played with passion and could beat you several different ways. However, in the last 25 years there have been at least 4 teams that were "better" in a direct match-up: UNC 82, UNLV 90, Duke 92, and UK 96. Those teams had great chemistry and NBA players that were able to dominate on the next level (well, maybe not the Duke team except for Grant Hill). This team does not really have players that will dominate on the next level, in my opinion.
It was a really, really impressive game and two championships in a row is incredible. The most impressive attribute (like all great teams) is there balance, and a guy on the bench that would start on almost any other team in America (Richard).
Still, regardless of what people will say in the short term for Florida's feats, the best team of all time is UNLV 1990.
Actually to speak of Duke NBA players off the 92 team, Laettner averaged atleast 18 ppg his first several years of the nba, then after an injury, he wasnt the same. Bobby Hurley also had a career ending injury.
Well not having very talented players capable of dominating at the next level actually reinforces their case. Repeating as champs without great dominating players should have been even tougher, so basically this underlines the capability of the team to overcome a lack of talent with great teamwork. I suppose lot of credits should go to the coach as well, but I find it somewhat pleasing that a team without maybe the best individuals was able to win, basket-ball is after all a team sport even if this seems to be forgotten with an NBA-oriented type of games where there seems to be more interest in individual performances (see Kobe B.) rather than collective performance.
A lot of people think that winning back to back championships makes a team great, but I don't see the connection. Especially given the fact that so many great talents go pro early now. This Florida team was good, but I don't seem stacking up against the LJ/Augmon UNLV squad. Sure, they lost to Duke, but I think most acknowledge that 9 times out of 10 they would have won, but they just happened to lose when it counted.
What Florida does deserve credit for is their chemistry. Probably the best chemistry of any team I've seen. But if you put them in a 16 team bracket with the other all-time great teams of the NCAAs, I don't think they'd win it. They lack the "carry it on your shoulder" superstar, that also has a great supporting case (like that UNLV team).
I think what we have seen though is that the NCAAs are a lot weaker now with so much talent going to the NBA early. So if you have a good team bring back their starters, then you have a near lock for a repeat.
Here's a question. Would last year's Florida team be considered one of the greats?
As is confirmed in today's Slate coverage, the Gators had to beat two teams last night - OSU and the refs. It was obvious from the first minutes that Oden was going to get a pass from the boys in stripes, and he did. Some of the vicious hacks and hip checks he committed were too obvious to miss, even on TV. At the same time, the Gators certainly got their share of ticky-tac fouls. No matter. In spite of that, and in spite of all the constant promotion by Packer and Nance, Oden couldn't beat this TEAM singlehandedly. We're unlikely to see the likes of them again, and every fan should savor it. You don't see that in the pros. It's what makes college sports so unique and satisfying. Maybe the Olympic Committee should consider Donovan's team concept for the next Olympics - if anyone can mould a bunch of NBA egos into one, it's him.
It's amazing how some of you won't give credit to a talented, dedicated group of kids. What's wrong with banging your chest, dancing in a circle? It's passion. They're not trying to show anybody up. They are just getting hype. People express themselves in different ways. Some people, like Oden for example, are introverted. Noah is an extroverted individual, who pumps himself and his team with his energy and exuberance. So what. That's what makes people who they are, they're personality. It's good to see a group of players play for each other, encourage each other, and celebrate together. Stop complaining and recognize what they have accomplished. And no, I'm not a Gator fan, just a fan of good basketball.
This team reaffirms my beief that character, integrity and love (each other, team, game) have power over greed. One particular person to remember is Corey Brewer who, with the blessing of his crippled Dad, gave up more than most of us could ever imagine. I am 62 years old with two heroes, one wheelchair bound, the other not even 21 years old! Too bad I will never see Brewer play again. I don't watch the circus (NBA).
Let's look at this a little differently people. Florida didn't need a last second shot or highlight video play to win. They dominated other teams and didn't let them even smell victory. Perhaps the lack of close games is causing many of us to discount their consideration as best team ever. Do I think they're the best ever? No. However, they certainly deserve to be in the discussion as they did more than they needed to do to win and did just that. They won. Twice.
Stop the presses! In the one shining moment video there is CLEARLY an OSU player banging his chest after an exciting moment. Oh the humanity! Oh the classlessness! What a horrible human being!. Give me a break. Swallow those sour grapes and move on.
Great article, Luke. Captured exactly what I wish I could articulate. As a Gator fan, I do not think they are the greatest team ever, but they are surely one of the best. For a lot of reasons stated here, repeats just do not happen in college basketball. However, it does not happen by accident or luck as some of you suggest. In regards to Noah, cocky yes(he's French), but this guy turns away the chance to be drafted #1 with millions to stay young a little longer and earn a SHOT (no guarantees) to make history. Not to mention he is the consummate teammate, no concerns for stats, just what do I have to do to win. How arrogant to stay in school, not consider money the path to happiness, and try to make history in the process. Disgusting! Let's not forget how young these guys really are, I was an idiot from 18-20. Well, maybe longer. Anyway, other teams may have more talent or potential, but this team plays more like a team than most I can remember. No superstars, just unselfish, teamfirst players. We should hope more teams acted so arrogantly.
To all of you who say that the three point line needs to be moved back...why wasn't OSU hitting any of them if it's so easy? Fact is the difference in the game was defense. Florida guarded Oden with a 4 man rotation one on one (instead of doubling) so they could concentrate on defending the perimeter. OSU on the other hand is one of the worst teams at defending the 3 which is partly because Oden (although he is a beast in the inside) limits what you can do on defense because you have to keep him inside. Also, where was Humphrey knocking down those 3s. He was knocking them 3 feet behind the 3 point line. Move the line to NBA range and he would have still been hitting them...
The past two years Florida has had the highest field goal percentage with underrated defensive play. Be jealous if you want, call them classless if you want, but any college basketball fan should remember this as the best team since Vegas or even back to the great UCLA team.
Pride should not be confused with arrogance. The team is proud of what they accomplished and just because they show the Gator spirit that does not mean they are being arrogant. They have every right to be very proud of themselves; they have accomplished something very few people can ever claim to have accomplished. Everyone sitting at their computers criticizing these athletes have no idea how hard they have worked and how long they have practiced. Until you have gone out there and accomplished anything near what they have you have no right to criticize them! They deserve all the credit they receive. Go Gators!!
To all of the anonymous comment people on this blog, please go back to what ever unhappy hole you climbed out of and wait your turn and only hope your team can accomplish what the mighty Gators have! The sad thing is people like you really have no life so all you do is belittle those who succeed because you have nothing to be complemented on! Gators have won back to back nothing else matters nor do the comparisons!!
Perhaps my memory isn't as good as I'd like, but I seem to recall that in last year's tournament the Gators' high FG% was said to be because of all the dunks they were getting. Now, this year they post another high FG% and people are saying its because of 3-point shooting? We can't have it both ways, can we? Seems to be the Gators simply took the shots that were given to them... and made them.