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 10:04:00 AM
Goodbye to the Gators ... and a Top 10 For 2007-08
Rich Clarkson/NCAA Sports
ATLANTA -- The Florida Era was finished no matter what happened Monday night, but the euphoria of the victory party made it easier to let go. As the Gators' Oh-Fours -- juniors Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah -- were flashing two-finger, two-peat salutes on the stage at the Georgia Dome, only a small pocket of fans piped up with a chant of "One more year!" The plea quickly lost steam and was overwhelmed by the greater celebratory din.
Florida had just made history, beating Ohio State 84-75 to become the first team since Duke in 1991-92 to repeat as national champions, and only the sixth ever back-to-back title-winners. Noah, the indefatigable icon who last year had told reporters that winning the NCAA tournament was "better than sex" (then adding "I should know, because I'm doing it right!") this time made a statement with his actions on the stage. He first removed his mouthpiece and chucked it down onto the court, then took off each of his black Nikes and wildly heaved them into a sea of blue-and-orange fans. The message was clear: I won't be needing these anymore.
None of the Gators were interested in talking three-peat, and really, after two titles, what statements were left to make? Noah hinted that his work was done, saying, "I remember when I was telling people, 'I'm going back to school,' and they were like, 'What? Are you crazy?' But you know what? I feel like now all of a sudden people understand that it's more than money. It's more than that. Now you guys are going to write about history -- one of the best teams ever. That's special. That's something that everybody in this locker room will never forget."
With those memories fresh in the minds, the Oh-Fours are soon expected to make a collective jump to the '07 NBA Draft, where three of them will be Lottery Picks (Horford, Noah and Brewer, in that order) and Green will be fighting his way out of the second round. "If one of us goes," said Brewer, "we all go."
They're going -- and leaving the title race for '07-08 wide open in their wake. Who will cut down the nets next year in San Antonio? Herewith, a first look at the top 10 for 2007-08 (with the assumption Georgetown's Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, Kansas' Brandon Rush, North Carolina's Brandan Wright, Ohio State's Greg Oden, Texas' Kevin Durant, UCLA's Arron Afflalo and USC's Nick Young also make the early jump to the NBA):
1. NORTH CAROLINA Provided Tyler Hansbrough passes on the draft to work on his offensive repertoire, he'll be back with a vengeance for his junior season. After coming within a Georgetown three-pointer of the Final Four in '07, the Tar Heels' baby backcourt of sophomores Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington has matured enough to help Psycho T take Carolina all the way.
2. UCLA Junior point guard Darren Collison, who was snubbed for All-America honors in '07, will emerge from Afflalo's shadow to become a household name. With five-star freshman power forward Kevin Love -- an old-school post player who's been college-ready since 16 -- adding an offensive dimension inside, a third straight Final Four and coach Ben Howland's first national title are well within reach.
3. KANSAS For the second consecutive season the Jayhawks will be the best team on paper -- but can they get it done in March? Ballhawks Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers will ensure the D remains fierce, but bullish guard Sherron Collins and elastic forward Julian Wright need to become scoring stars. Collins' painful knee injury -- he was said to be crying in practice the day before facing UCLA in the Elite Eight -- may have been the difference between KU heading home, or packing for Atlanta.
4. MEMPHIS Chicago phenom Derrick Rose, Rivals.com's top-ranked point guard in the Class of 2007, joins one of the nation's deepest, most athletic rosters and should form a devastating duo in the backcourt with slasher Chris Douglas-Roberts. Look for another undefeated Conference USA season, and a serious run toward San Antonio.
5. OHIO STATE As long as ultrasteady point guard Mike Conley Jr. returns -- and that's no lock -- the Buckeyes will survive without their bearded baron of the paint. Incoming 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos will try to fill Oden's shoes, while guards Jamar Butler and Daequan Cook, who played auxiliary roles in '07, will shoulder more of the scoring load.
6. LOUISVILLERick Pitino's collection of blue-chip youngsters -- particularly breakout NCAA tournament star Edgar Sosa, who dropped 31 on Texas A&M in a near second-round upset -- look ready to out-duel Marquette and Notre Dame for the Big East title.
7. WASHINGTON STATE Tony Bennett-ball was no one-hit wonder. The rookie head coach signed a seven-year extension, and the Cougars only lose forward Ivory Clark from their starting lineup. Led by its Island/Dairyland backcourt blend of Derrick Low (Honolulu) and Kyle Weaver (Beloit, Wis.), Wazzu will be in the thick of a tight Pac-10 race.
8. USC The national spotlight will follow super-recruit O.J. Mayo to Troy, where the Trojans are already loaded. He'll join Daniel Hackett and Gabe Pruitt in a three-headed backcourt, and as long as the chemistry clicks -- and it doesn't become the O.J.-only show -- USC will be a force.
9. TENNESSEE Sweet-shooting Chris Lofton, a likely Wooden Award front-runner, should have a fine swan song in Knoxville after nearly bouncing Ohio State from the bracket in '07. Look for point guard Ramar Smith, one of four freshmen who played major minutes, to have a big sophomore season. He arrived on campus late last fall and missed valuable time to prepare for his rookie campaign.
10. INDIANA Polished scorer Eric Gordon, the Indianapolis recruit who spurned Illinois for the Hoosiers, arrives in Bloomington for what may be his only collegiate season. Paired with forward D.J. White, they'll have Indiana challenging OSU for the Big Ten crown.
ON THE FRINGE: Michigan State, Marquette, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Butler, Texas A&M, Georgetown, Texas, Kansas State, Arizona, Syracuse, LSU, Oregon, West Virginia, Pitt, Duke, NC State, Gonzaga, Stanford, Wisconsin and Mississippi State.
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.
ATLANTA -- I'm sitting in the press room at the Georgia Dome, where reporters are at a sea of tables the width of a football field, writing their preview stories for Monday night's title game. Soon I'll get started on mine -- I've drawn the task of playing Captain Obvious and providing you with an airtight argument of why Florida will win -- but at present I'm on the Web site of online grocer FreshDirect, looking up prices of meat. USDA Prime filet mignon is $24.99 per pound (pricey, but the description reads, "one bite and you will understand why it's such a popular cut"). Their good Genoa Salami is only $6.49 per pound, and comes with no description. Filet's superiority to salami is rather obvious, but this provided solid supporting evidence.
Why does any of this matter? Because of Joakim Noah. Not because the Florida star requested that I shop for him, but because I keep laughing over one of his stock title-defense quotes, the general version of which goes like this:
"Last year our motto was P.H.D.: poor, hungry and driven. This year, it's harder because you've got to keep that P.H.D., but there's filet mignon everywhere around you and salami and all these great foods. It's hard, but at the end of the day, it's just extra focus and extra sacrifice."
In Noah's personal food-rating system, salami is as much of a delicacy as filet, $18.50 price difference be damned. This could (as some readers pointed out) be a French-gourmet thing, seeing that Noah grew up around Paris charcuteries, but I still have trouble putting them on the same pedestal. And if I'm a grocer in Gainesville, I'm changing the salami labels right now. The smart ones will at least double it to $13 per pound; one of Noah's other stock lines is "When we win, we all eat," which means that there's likely to be a run on steak and cold cuts when they return to campus with their second straight national title.
Greg Oden and Joakim Noah are enthralled by the media's questions.
For those of you upset that prime Sunday blogging space is being wasted on meat products, all I can say is, when you're at the Final Four, it's essential to keep an eye on Jo Noah at all times. He's the circus, whether you like it or not. He's the best quote, whether you're sick of listening to him or not. And he's by far the most intriguing star. Sit in on an Ohio State press conference -- like today's, for example -- and listen to Greg Oden follow up a Mike Conley Jr. quote with "what Mike said" for the second time, and you'll get my drift.
I get the feeling that Noah, despite his high entertainment value, is a hyperactive character who's not best-suited to sitting still for the media for extended periods of time. Colleague Stew Mandel said he watched Noah, in the locker room on Friday, pause between answering questions to get in a few seconds of playing Sonic the Hedgehog on his Sidekick 3. And although I have no confirmation on this, my instincts tell me Noah was texting jokes back-and-forth with Taurean Green while they were on the dais on Sunday, hiding their Sidekicks under the table. And still, when the Gators were egged on with a question about how Ohio State's Ron Lewis called the Buckeyes "great" and the Gators "good," it was Noah who immediately piped up to mock the reporter for trying to make it into a story.
In fake horror, Noah replied, "Oh my God! He said that!"
He then continued with a big grin, "No! What a bad person. I don't even know what else to say. I really don't know."
There have been more than a few times, over the past three weeks, where Noah has crossed the line from provocative to mildly nauseating, with all of his exaggerated talk about the "haters" wanting to see Florida fail. The Gators have been criticized, but not to that degree -- they were, after all, the overwhelming favorite to win it all entering this tournament. And yet I'm always happy that he's around, because the hyperbole is usually secondary to the quality lines he drops, such as saying on Sunday that "he grew up rock-and-roll," and telling a story of recently staying up until 6 a.m. with football player Tony Joiner, reminiscing about their careers at Florida.
Late Saturday night, in the locker room after beating UCLA for the second straight year, Noah had a small group of reporters around him, and launched into a great rant on the old, Bill Walton-era Bruins, who won back-to-back titles in 1972-73:
"Today I was just flipping through the channels, and HBO had a special on UCLA in the 1970s with Bill Walton. [It's called The UCLA Dynasty.] That really inspired me, that whole story. I didn't know about that team. I knew that John Wooden won a lot of championships. Coach Wooden -- is that his name? John Wooden? [Reporters say yes, many of them trying to suppress laughter.] John Wooden won a lot of championships, and he was an unbelievable coach. But I didn't know too much about the team itself, and it was really interesting to see Bill Walton and his stance on the war in Vietnam -- just his protesting. [Noah had initially protested going to the White House after Florida's national title, because he's against the Iraq War.] He was an All-American, he was such a big popular figure out there, and he didn't care, because it was all about his heart and what he believed in. He and coach Wooden had their differences, but coach Wooden would let him be himself, because that's just who Bill Walton was, and that was really interesting. If anything, I felt like that got me excited to play today. Got me hyped. So thanks, UCLA!"
I interviewed Walton as a part of our Kevin Durant package in February (the SI cover story, and a long feature on the Web site), and my favorite quote was about the contrast of his on- and off-court relationships with Wooden. Speaking about his freshman season in Westwood, Walton said, "In the controlled environment of a John Wooden practice, I was able to learn and develop and mature. And off the court, coach kept shaking his head and saying, 'What are you doing?'"
I suspect Gators coach Billy Donovan could sympathize with Wooden's situation. Iconic players like Noah and Walton come along about as often as repeat national champs, though, and the mild headaches they cause are well worth the entertainment -- and the rewards.
ATLANTA -- Before enjoying the open bar at the Intersport party, I spent the early part of Thursday night at the Final Four Salute, a gala-type event where CBS' Jim Nantz chats up the teams and coaches in front of an audience of NCAA dignitaries. They put the thing on CSTV this year, so it lost some of its intimacy, and its format tightened: in 2006 in Indianapolis, Nantz brought out old pal Peyton Manning as a surprise for Tennessee boy Lee Humphrey, but there there were no celebrity guests in '07 (unless you count NCAA prez Myles Brand). I has hoping for Michael Vick to show up and offer them advice on getting "jewelry boxes" for their Final Four gift watches, but no dice.
The only way to amuse yourself at this thing is to grade the formalwear -- or lack thereof -- of the four teams. As a notorious underdresser I can sympathize with Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who was clearly embarrassed when he walked up to the stage wearing an ensemble that included a black golf shirt and no socks. Nantz, as well as Billy Donovan, John Thompson III and Ben Howland, were already up there in suits, and Matta sheepishly explained that Dononvan had told him "it was a casual event." Good to see Final-Four rookie hazing going on in the coaching ranks. (Check out the picture at the top of this post, if you missed Thad's ankles the first time.)
In the best-dressed team department, Georgetown was a clear No. 1, with sophomore reserve Octavius Spann as the star in a argyle-sweater-and-suit combo. UCLA was No. 2, with Arron Afflalo sporting a Miami Vice look; Florida was No. 3 (despite the best efforts of Jo Noah to drag them down by going tieless and untucked); and Matta's boys, obviously affected by the Donovan misinformation, were last. I'm running a picture of the Bruins below not to show off their suits, but because our man Lorenzo Mata was rocking the best kicks of the evening: Giant, pearly white athletic shoes with his beige dress pants. Straight outta GQ ... or Huntington Park, Calif. Probably more of the latter.
No hatin': Joakim Noah leads the Gators in plus-minus rating.
Travis Lindquist/Getty Images
ATLANTA -- Checking in from the Marriott Marquis, where I just turned on the TV to find house channel 36 playing a silent slideshow of past NCAA champions. It spans from Jordan (1982) to Joakim (2006) and makes you do a double-take on the '95 slide, which for some reason is a photo of George Zidek cutting down the nets. I can't think of a better image to represent that tourney than Zidek, can you?
Enough of the backdrop. We get access to the teams tomorrow, which is also open-practice day at the Georgia Dome (and by open practice, we mean more of a shootaround/dunk contest/go through the motions kind of affair; all of the real work is done in hidden sessions elsewhere). In the meantime I figured I'd deliver what might be the Blog's last, or at least its penultimate, numbers post.
Odds vs. Efficiency
How Vegas, KenPom.com handicap the tourney's final weekend
The table shows that while Florida is an overwhelming favorite in Vegas, the Gators are closer to the rest of the pack when it comes to efficiency. Pomeroy projects a one-point game between Florida and UCLA, which is a lot closer than most of us would imagine. Ohio State, meanwhile, is a marginal No. 2 over Georgetown in both categories.
For the second offering, I spent part of the morning poring over kenpom.com's HD tourney boxscores, which might just be the greatest invention of the 2006-07 season. HD boxes are statistical equivalent of watching a game on your 42-inch Sharp Aquos versus your 20-inch kitchen set, in part because they include one of the juiciest -- and previously unavailable -- college stats: player plus-minus ratings. Unfortunately the HD compiler depends teams' full play-by-play data, something that Georgetown and UCLA don't make available online, so we only have full tourney plus-minus for Florida and Ohio State. Which is better than nothing, given that they're the faves to meet on Monday night, and it also allows us to make a few Oden, Noah and Horford observations.
Here's the Gators' data (I've omitted their first-round game, which had a 43-point victory margin, because it's just a plus-bomb):
Florida's Plus/Minus Ratings
Combined data from past three rounds of NCAA tournament (total margin of victory: 23)
Here's the Buckeyes' data (first-round game also omitted):
Ohio State's Plus/Minus Ratings
Combined data from past three rounds of NCAA tournament (total margin of victory: 24)
Oden may not be scoring the most points for Ohio State, but his plus-43 rating is off the charts. The most surprising thing in both charts, to me, is that Noah actually has a higher rating than Oden; Jo gets ripped for his lack of ability to score in the half-court, but his impact on the Gators' energy, transition game and defense is massive. Just as eye-opening is the fact that the guy who is regarded as the more polished player, Horford, has the lowest plus-minus of any Gator starter -- and a rating 28 points behind Noah's.
The charts don't paint a pretty picture for either teams' reserve big men. Florida's Chris Richard has an abysmal negative-24 rating, mostly due to a couple of horrid defensive stretches against a perimeter-minded Butler team, while OSU's Othello Hunter is negative-16 after weathering a few Memphis runs on Saturday. In HD, the importance of keeping your star bigs out of foul trouble is extremely clear.
Since you'll be subjected to Final Four breakdowns ad nauseam for the rest of the week, the Blog is piecing the lineup together instead. Herewith, the body of the Atlanta quartet:
Georgetown's Genes The Hoyas frequently state that they're forging a new identity using their ultra-efficient Princeton offense, but with famous fathers everywhere, it's still hard to separate themselves from old-school Georgetown. Coach John Thompson III and forward Pat Ewing are sons of Hoya royalty, while guard Jeremiah Rivers descended from the Celtics' Doc.
Joakim Noah's Trap The Gators' high-energy forward is the voice of the tournament thus far, whether you like it or not. From his "The seeds don't matter: it's yours against mine," post-dance rant on CBS after the SEC tournament, to his cries of "Keep hatin'" and "We win, we eat" after booking Florida's second straight trip to the Final Four, Noah never stops talking.
Arron Afflalo's Cool Confidence Most shooters would have become timid after going a combined 5-of-22 (and 1-of-8 from long distance) over a two-game stretch in the tournament. Not Afflalo. He came into his Elite Eight duel with Kansas ice-cold, erred on five of his first seven shots ... and then didn't miss for the rest of the game, finishing with 24 points. Next up: Revenge on Florida.
Greg Oden's Beard It's like a classic Larry Johnson playoff beard (a Lang Whitaker analogy), except Oden was wearing it for most of the regular season, too. Grant Wahl informed us Oden simply does not shave; he lets his facial hair grow out until he makes his next trip to the barber, who wipes it clean. Next year he'll have enough cash to install a barbershop in his house.
Jeff Green's Kicks Relevant for two reasons: First, Green and the Hoyas changed their shoes at halftime of the Vandy game, superstitiously ditching their new Jordan XX2s for their old Jordan B'Loyals. Second, because Green's feet made the tourney's most controversial move -- a debatable travel -- before he banked in the game-winner to sink the Commodores.
Lee Humphrey's Shooting Stroke When Humpty is on fire, the Gators are near-impossible to beat. He hit seven three-pointers (and finished with 24 points) in their Elite Eight win over Oregon, burning the Ducks' packed-in defense and even breaking the net in St. Louis -- causing a 10-minute delay -- after a fierce swish during the first half. UCLA, we presume, won't be leaving Lee so open Saturday.
Lorenzo Mata's Ink If there's one thing this Final Four is lacking, it's tattoo volume. Georgetown is mostly ink-free. So is Florida. All of this makes Mata -- who has a giant Aztec warrior on his left arm, and huge, praying hands with his mom's name on his right leg -- look like more of a renegade. If only he could bring back the mask that he wore last year in Indy ...
Ron Lewis' Daggers Daggers aren't body parts. But the ability to shoot dagger threes, as Lewis has, usually goes hand in hand with having something else. Cassells, let's call them. Lewis kept Ohio State alive in the tournament by forcing overtime against Xavier in the second round, and hit myriad big shots in his back-to-back 20-point performances vs. Tennessee and Memphis.
Taurean Green (left) led the Gators into a rematch of the 2006 title game.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Mike Conley quietly took home the South Region's MOP honors.
We're going small for the Blog's All-Second Weekend Team: two point guards, two shooting guards, and one new-age Scottie Pippen.
That Pip'-styled power forward, Georgetown's Jeff Green, is the squad's captain, based on his game-winning bank shot to beat Vanderbilt and his 22-point effort in the comeback that stunned Carolina. He's also humble to the point of amusement: Standing against a wall outside the Hoyas' locker room on Sunday night, Green was asked about being named the East Region's Most Outstanding Player. He responded, in a completely genuine manner, "I was? Oh."
"I thought it would be [Georgetown freshman] DaJuan Summers, because he played his butt off. I'm surprised to get it."
You, Jeff, were the only one who was surprised. Now, for the rest of the team:
(A few criteria for selections: The first team was limited only to players who advanced to the Final Four, and the entire list was restricted to players who appeared in both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds.)
G: Taurean Green, Jr., Florida Stats: 5-of-8 shooting (all threes), 17 points, 1 assist, zero turnovers vs. Butler; 5-of-12 shooting, 21 points, 3 assists, 3 turnovers vs. Oregon
Green buried five treys to help the Gators fend off Butler's upset bid -- and then outscored Al Horford and Jo Noah combined (they had 20) in the Midwest Region final.
Kansas' vaunted backcourt got scorched by Afflalo in San Jose; can he now get revenge on Florida for the egg he laid in last year's title game?
G: Mike Conley, Fr., Ohio State Stats: 4-of-10 shooting, 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 turnover, 2 steals vs. Tennessee; 5-of-11 shooting (9-of-10 FTs), 19 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 5 turnovers, 2 steals vs. Memphis
Most of the talk in San Antonio surrounded Greg Oden (and Joey Dorsey's verbal antagonizing of the big man) while Conley was quietly named the region's MOP.
G/F: Ron Lewis, Sr., Ohio State Stats: 9-of-17 shooting, 25 points, 5 rebounds vs. Tennessee; 5-of-12 shooting (10-of-10 FTs), 22 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals vs. Memphis
Lewis, who toiled in obscurity for two years at Bowling Green, made a timely transfer, as he's now gunned the Buckeyes to within two wins of a national title. F: Jeff Green, Jr., Georgetown (CAPTAIN) Stats: 7-of-11 shooting, 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover vs. Vanderbilt; 10-of-17 shooting, 22 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover vs. North Carolina
Where will Green's East Region MOP trophy go? Anywhere but his place. "I don't keep my trophies," he said.
Sixth Man: Jonathan Wallace, Jr., Georgetown Stats: 3-of-8 shooting, 8 points, 4 assists, 0 turnovers vs. Vanderbilt; 7-of-11 shooting, 19 points, 7 assists, 1 turnover vs. North Carolina
Had Wallace made more noise against Vandy, he might trumped Green for team captain status. The guy whom Green called "our best player" committed just one turnover in 71 minutes played on Friday and Sunday, and hit the cold-blooded trey that sent the UNC game to overtime. Second Team:
The Prince of Westwood (left) will be kicking it with his fellow Bruins in the ATL.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
NEW YORK -- The Blog Pool finally got a sponsor this week: Crayola Anti-Dust Chalk. Forty-six of our 638 bracketeers picked the entire Final Four correctly ... while I only got half, and am tied for 224th place. I'm only a little bitter. Can you tell?
Florida tubist David Wunderlich, currently in second place, is writing a symphonic ode to Jo Noah that's called "Keep Hatin'."
David Wunderlich, the Florida tubist who was our runaway leader after the first weekend, has fallen into second place and is currently cursing Jonathan Wallace for soiling his Final Four. Wunderlich still has the most correct picks (53) of anyone in the pool, and had a perfect Midwest Region. His bracket, "Lee For Three," could not have been more appropriately named, given Humphrey's shooting heroics in St. Louis, where Wunderlich was on the sidelines in the Gators pep band. He kindly sent us a snapshot of him on duty, with the disclaimer that "it's not really that great of a picture," and while both he and his tuba were left off of the band's Final Four travel list, we hear there's a movement afoot to get him to Atlanta. Which would be nice, because if Florida beats Ohio State in the title game, he's taking home the big prize. (Whatever that is.)
Your new leader, meanwhile, is a fellow named Eric Bakewell, who nailed the Final Four and will be crowned champ if the Gators beat Georgetown on Monday night. Bakewell has yet to give his team a good name (it's just "Team Bakewell") or send us an e-mail (two strikes, Eric!), but we'll forgive him for now because his picks have been so absurdly good: he only missed two Sweet 16 teams and one in the Elite Eight.
The power of Google allows the Blog to at least guess who Bakewell might be: I found an L.A. lawyer of the same name who graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown law, and did his undergrad at Vandy. Our bracket-Bakewell has the Hoyas in his title game, and picked the Commodores to go to the Sweet 16. Coincidence? I think not. Eric, send us a note and confirm or correct your identity. (But don't bill the Blog for your time.)
A few other pool contenders have been kind enough to check in (the Blog urges anyone with a shot at winning to send an e-mail): R.J. Kidd, the owner of our current third-place team, "Misery Loves Company," would have taken the overall lead had Memphis upset Ohio State on Saturday. Kidd, a deaf second-year student at Rochester Institute of Technology, named his bracket that way because he expected it to tank ... and then it turned out to be the greatest forecasting work he's ever done. Bryan Brooks, who was in the hunt after the first weekend, wrote in to lament the death of his "Pink Squirrels" bracket after Texas lost. Tom Mabry's "Bracket Challenge" team suffered the same fate; he said he has adopted Georgetown has his new fave, because they share an offense with the local boys at Air Force.
As for myself, I went and joined a college hockey pool. I figured I'd have better luck making picks on a bracket that I knew nothing about. My cousin Dave, a diehard fan who's running the thing, took me to the one hockey game I saw all year -- Wisconsin vs. Michigan at the Kohl Center -- but it was mainly a drinking event rather than an educational one. The Badgers didn't make the NCAA's 16-team field, and while the Wolverines did, I remember very little about them. Somehow, with the Frozen Four set, I'm tied with Dave for first and can win the meager pot if underdog Maine takes the title. The Black Bears were a three-seed, but as I kid I witnessed them winning the '93 national championship in Milwaukee, and on that basis figured they could do it again. That, folks, is how you pick 'em.
Will John Thompson III's Hoyas cut down the nets in the ATL?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Both Final Four matchups are repeats of 2006 tourney games: Georgetown and Ohio State met in the second round, while UCLA and Florida met in the title bout.
Getty Images (4)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The back hallways of Continental Airlines Arena had nearly cleared out by 9 p.m. Sunday, when two men in suits came walking away from the team locker rooms as maintenance workers were stripping down the NCAA tournament signage. The much taller of the two, John Thompson Jr., had a white-and-black Georgetown Final Four hat perched atop his head, and his right arm around his companion -- his hatless son, head coach John Thompson III. Big John, as the legendary elder who led the Hoyas to three national title games in the 1980s has come to be known, leaned down and spoke in hushed baritone into Little John's right ear, and the proud father and beaming boy shared a laugh.
As they neared the exit, a Georgetown staffer propped open the door and began excitedly shouting into his walkie-talkie. "The Thompsons are coming to the bus!" he said. "I've got the Thompsons coming!"
Thanks to a stunning, 96-84 overtime win over top-seeded North Carolina in the East Region final, it really is happening: The Thompsons are headed back to the Final Four.
Second-seeded Georgetown pulled off an epic comeback victory to punch the last ticket to Atlanta, filling out a powerhouse field that also includes two No. 1s, Florida and Ohio State, and another No. 2, UCLA. On one side of the field it's big-stage Deja Vu, with a rematch of the 2006 Gators-Bruins title game, while the other is a Dinosaur Duel, featuring a rare meeting of prehistoric 7-footers Roy Hibbert and Greg Oden. None of the Final Four teams, in this, the Ultimate Chalk Bracket, snuck up on the nation, and none of them separated themselves from a loaded Elite Eight field by accident, either. While Big John said he planned to celebrate the win by "getting some sleep," the Blog is forging ahead and breaking down the heavyweights headed for the A-T-L:
Tournament Identity: The Hoyas hammered home a fact that had started to become evident late in the regular season: They own the nation's best offense. In case you missed the numbers from Sunday's thriller, Georgetown shot 57.6 percent against North Carolina, which had the nation's fourth-most efficient defense. The Hoyas also hit 57.1 percent of their 3s, and more importantly, didn't panic and deviate from their Princetonian scheme when they were down 10, at 75-65, with 7:19 left in the game. "We believed in our offense," said Hibbert, who finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. Their faith was rewarded, as the shot that erased the Heels' final, three-point lead -- a trey by point guard Jonathan Wallace from the left wing -- came in the flow of their regular sets. "That's a practice shot," Wallace said of the clutch 3-pointer. "I shoot that shot every day."
The Hoyas are ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive efficiency, a fact that has not eluded East Region Most Outstanding Player Jeff Green, who finished with 22 points. "We know that our game is based on our offense," he said. "We're just going to have that identity that if you can't stop our offense, we're going to have a chance. We have the great athletes that make the Princeton offense look good."
How to Let Them Beat You: Fail to stay aware of their backcuts. The backdoor play is the most distinct -- and most cliche -- element of the Princeton offense, but against Georgetown's personnel, even the best defenders get burned. Wallace scored both the first basket of the game and the first bucket of overtime by backdooring a dumbfounded Tywon Lawson, and the Hoyas finished with six back-cut layups on the day. "We've played against teams that try to go back door," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We just didn't guard it as effectively today."
How to Beat Them: Control the offensive glass. That's not the easiest task, obviously, against a frontline of Hibbert, Green and DaJuan Summers. But when the Tar Heels took a 50-44 lead into halftime, it was no coincidence that they were winning the offensive rebounding war 10-4. The Hoyas still finished negative-10 on the game in that department, but they didn't allow UNC to grab a single offensive board in the final 6:26 of regulation, and that made the comeback possible.
Tournament Identity: This was a team that was unsure of its leadership hierarchy as late as February, with its super-freshmen still wondering whether it was acceptable for them to get in the faces of OSU's upperclassmen. The Buckeyes' roles, through the first four games of the dance, have become more clearly defined. Frosh point guard Mike Conley Jr., the MOP of the South Region, is the leader and OSU's best player -- no matter how much NBA scouts salivate over Oden. Senior Ron Lewis is their dagger-man (the gunner with the cojones to take every big three). Junior Jamar Butler, the ex-point who was displaced by Conley, has turned into long-distance shooting option No. 2. And Oden, despite his ambidextrous skills in the lane, is not the top offensive option, but is the most dominating defensive presence in the tournament.
How To Let Them Beat You: Piss off the normally sleepy giant, who shows emotion about as often as Conley commits turnovers (which is next to never). When Oden does come alive, though, it's best to get out of the way. Memphis' Joey Dorsey made the genius move of calling Oden "overrated" and using a botched David/Goliath reference when discussing their Elite Eight matchup. Oden finished with 17 points and nine rebounds ... and held Dorsey to zero points and three boards.
How To Beat Them: Get Oden off the floor. He doesn't foul out often, but he is prone to early foul trouble, so don't be scared of shot-blocking prowess and have your big men challenge him inside. Just how valuable is Oden to the Buckeyes' success? Take a look at his plus-minus ratings against Tennessee (+14 in 17:30 minutes played) and Memphis (+26 in 24:26 played). They're stunning.
Tournament Identity:Arron Afflalo's sublime performance in the West Region final against Kansas elevated his reputation from "guy who occasionally hits big shots" to "stone-cold star." Really, what two-guard goes 10-of-15 against the Jayhawks' intense backcourt -- and connects on all of his final eight attempts -- in an Elite Eight game? "If he plays like that," teammate Alfred Aboya said of Afflalo, "we can't lose."
Coach Ben Howland's gritty, denial defense is the Bruins' bread and butter, and it has been suffocating during the tournament, holding all of its first four opponents -- including red-hot Kansas -- to under 0.900 points per possession. (The Jayhawks' offensive efficiency in that game, at 0.798 points per possession, was by far their worst of the season; before that, they had never been held under 0.912.) That helped make up for an uncharacteristically high turnover count from Darren Collison (seven, against just one assist) and a near-complete absence of low-post baskets. Anyone who's followed UCLA closely this season knows that Collison's sloppiness can be chalked up as an aberration. The Bruins' big men, however, need to complement their stingy D with some offensive production.
How To Let Them Beat You: Assume that your guards, just because they've been steady all season, will be unaffected by the pressure of Collison and Afflalo. They turn up the heat to a new level. KU's four-headed backcourt, which had been an unstoppable machine over the past two months, shot a combined 12-of-36 (33.3 percent) against the Bruins' duo and committed 13 turnovers.
How To Beat Them: UCLA's post-to-post double-team -- a staple of the Howland system -- can neutralize even a front line as athletic as Kansas'. But as Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford proved in the '06 title game, big men who both get out in transition and pass quickly out of the double-team can cause serious trouble, and exploit what may be the Bruins' only weakness.
Tournament Identity: In case you weren't privy to Noah's "We win, we eat" chant after the Gators took down Oregon in the Midwest Region final, they've made it clear they're still hungry for a second title. And it seems Florida's players also believe -- far more than is actually true -- that this encore run should be billed as Them vs. An Entire World of Doubters. "Keep hating," Noah said on Sunday. "It fuels the fire. Hopefully we can get two more wins -- then people can really keep hating."
Such an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude marks a 180 turn from the meekness that defined their late-February, three-loss swoon. That slump is what fueled most of those doubts in the first place. Basketball-wise, the most promising development of the Gators' Elite Eight win over Oregon was the dominant play of their backcourt. Point guard Taurean Green and shooting guard Lee Humphrey were far from weak links all season, but they do sit well behind the frontcourt duo of Noah and Horford in the publicity standings. On Sunday, Humphrey scored 23 points and 7-of-13 long-distance shooting, while Green had 21 points on 4-of-8 three-point shooting. Each guard outscored the combined total of Noah and Horford's points (20).
How To Let Them Beat You: Decide that leaving Humphrey open while sagging your defense into the paint is a good idea. Whatever a team does to attempt to neutralize Florida's bigs (we detailed one of these methods in a column on Wednesday) it can't include using the man guarding "Humpty" on low-post double-teams. The Ducks learned the hard way, as he scorched them from outside, even tearing open the net at one point and causing a 10-minute delay.
How To Beat Them: The refrain of the "haters" during the NCAA tournament has been that Florida isn't hungry in the first half. The Gators trailed early against the Ducks on Sunday, just as they did against Jackson State, Purdue and Butler. A team that can jump on Florida in the first 10 minutes, when its appetite has yet to develop, and then play enough D down the stretch to hold back the flood, is capable of pulling off the upset. It's easier said than done -- but the window of opportunity exists.
THE FINAL FOUR MATCHUPS
Georgetown vs. Ohio State: The last time the Buckeyes faced an offense as good as Georgetown's -- Florida on Dec. 23 in Gainesville -- they were blown out. That, however, was multiple months ago, before Oden came into his own and Conley emerged as a bonafide star. The Hibbert-Oden duel will go a long way toward deciding the game, but so will the Hoyas' ability to defend Lewis and Butler on the perimeter.
The Pick: Georgetown 72, Ohio State 71. Set your watch to Jeff Green Time in Atlanta.
Florida vs. UCLA: The '07 Bruins are in many ways better than they were in '06 -- especially with Collison's defense and point-guard play, as well as Afflalo's big-shot confidence -- but have they proven they can prevent a repeat of last April's blowout? The fact they shut down Kansas' active bigs on Saturday was a positive sign, but Sasha Kaun, Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson are not Noah and Horford. Revenge will not come easy.
The Pick: Florida 69, UCLA 65. The hate, at least here, does not exist.
Wendell White leads seventh-seeded UNLV into the Sweet 16.
CHICAGO -- All hail the tuba! Florida's basketball team may have been mediocre through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, but one of its band members is dominating.
David Wunderlich, a UF grad student who plays the tuba in one of the Gators' pep bands, is putting the rest of the Tourney Blog Pool to shame. After the first weekend, Wunderlich's "Lee For Three" entry has 70 points (on 43 out of 48 correct picks) and is not only first in our pool, but fourth in the entire Hoops Bracket Challenge. He took the time to send us a note (something I encourage all Tourney Blog leaders and near-leaders to do), not to talk smack to the other 640-or-so entrants but just to introduce himself. "Of course, now that I've sent an e-mail acknowledging my success thus far, I expect everything to promptly fall apart," Wunderlich said.
Memo to whoever runs the Florida pep band: Wunderlich said he'll be at the St. Louis Regional but is not on the list to go to the Final Four. If he's still leading our pool, that has to change, right? How else will we be able replicate last year's courtside picture from the title game with now-famous winner Bradley White -- who also happened to be a Florida fan? (White has fallen from grace this year; his Jo Noah-themed '07 entry, "It's yours against mine," is in 514th place.)
University of Wisconsin student Joe Madden, whose "Blackhawks > Illiniwek" bracket was tied with Wunderlich's after the first round -- and who hails from my original hometown of Fort Atkinson, Wis. -- flopped like Vlade Divac in the second and plummeted to 76th. Joe wrote in to say that whatever happens, he'll still provide late-night bar-taxi service when I'm home visiting my 'rents. Reader Bryan Brooks, who has not e-mailed yet, is in second with his "Pink Squirrels" entry, and as for myself, I'm tied for 173rd. Not great, but not entirely embarrassing, either.
My last act before boarding a plane here at O'Hare is to honor my eight favorite team names in this year's Blog Pool. Since there were more than 600, I tried my best catch all of them; if you had a brilliant name and I missed it, I apologize.
• Durant Durant, by Tim Louman-Gardiner. Just wish Kev had hung around a little longer. • Acie Law XXIII, by Alex Mitchell. Will the 13th Acie still inherit clutch genes? • Nigel Dixon's Spare Tire, by Brett Hainline. Before Big Greasy, there was Big Jelly. • My Morning Bracket, by Craig Chin. I'm a sucker for Jim James references. • Company In My Backcourt, by Melissa Tuttle Carr. Ditto for Jeff Tweedy references. • Peaches and Kareem, by Craig Josselyn. If that's a play on the Beck song, Craig, I like it. • Tim Hardaway's Merry Men, by John Robus. Tim ruined my retro shirt, and I'm still ticked at him for it. • RashardGriffithAutograph, by Nathan Winn. Nate's my brother. But the Rashard autograph is a classic story: In the 1994 NCAA tournament, he took approximately 20 seconds to laboriously sign his name on my game program -- and it took up about 50 percent of the page.