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The Gators Again
April 09, 2007
Florida's NBA-ready stars postponed pro riches and returned to repeat as champions, securing a lofty place in college hoops history by outgunning a familiar foe--Ohio State--in the title game
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April 09, 2007

The Gators Again

Florida's NBA-ready stars postponed pro riches and returned to repeat as champions, securing a lofty place in college hoops history by outgunning a familiar foe--Ohio State--in the title game

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Take a good, hard look, America. In an era of me-first gunners, one-year supernovas (see you in the NBA, Kevin Durant) and attention spans the length of a YouTube clip, it may be a long, long time before we see another college basketball team like these Florida Gators. Just listen to forward Corey Brewer, a.k.a. the Drunken Dribbler (for his swerving forays to the hoop), who was as sober as a reverend (for a little while, at least) after his Gators claimed their second straight national title on Monday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. "I feel like we're one of the best college basketball teams to ever play the game," Brewer said after Florida's 84--75 victory over Ohio State. "You can argue about it, but I'd put us up against anybody."

On Monday night it wasn't a hard case for Counselor Brewer to make. Not after the Gators had destroyed Ohio State from three-point range, shooting 10 for 18 while holding the Buckeyes to a miserable 4 for 23. Or after forward Al Horford had danced a Dominican merengue on his interior defenders to the tune of 18 points and 12 rebounds. Or after Brewer, named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, had blitzed Ohio State from every angle, producing three treys, three steals and countless grimaces of frustration from his opponents.

If last year's champions were the self-proclaimed Gator Boys, charming upstarts who rode a Banzai Pipeline wave to glory, then these titlists should go down as the History Boys, a once-in-a-generation collective that achieved one of the rarest feats in modern American team sports. Only once in the past 33 years had Division I men's college basketball crowned a repeat champ--Duke, in 1991 and '92--and never had a reigning team overcome such an exhausting seasonlong barrage of questions about its chances of winning back-to-back trophies.

On Monday all those questions were answered in full, leaving Florida fans to bask in the glow of an unprecedented run that now includes the last three national championships in the two most popular college sports (two in basketball and one in football--that one coming just three months ago against none other than Ohio State, leaving Buckeyes fans feeling as if they've been struck down by some kind of blue-and-orange curse). Yet the legacy of the History Boys will go far beyond mere trophies. "I'd like for this team to be remembered as the greatest team that ever played," Gators coach Billy Donovan said afterward. "I'm not saying this team would beat the UNLVs [of the early 1990s] and the UCLAs [of the John Wooden dynasty]. I'm not talking about wins and losses. I'm talking about the word team."

By winning his second national championship, at age 41, Billy D launched himself into rarefied air, becoming the youngest coach to claim his second championship ring since Bob Knight (who was 40 when he won for the second time with Indiana, in 1981). From now on, coaches whose national-title teams return intact will use Donovan's masterly strategy as a case study on how to handle the pressure to repeat. It all started last April, not long after the Gators' NBA-ready stars (center Joakim Noah, Horford and Brewer) decided to postpone professional riches and return to school, when Donovan sat down in his office and began constructing a list under the heading Distractions.

I love being alone, thinking and writing down my thoughts," Donovan said during a rare break from game preparation in his Atlanta hotel last week. "I wanted to leave no stone unturned in getting our guys to be totally committed to our team. There were 10 to 15 potential distractions I looked at and said, 'These are the things I have to be ready for.'" As Donovan's list grew, he realized just how many pitfalls possibly awaited his team. Selfishness. Agents. Media demands. Yet perhaps the most intriguing distraction he included was this one: Billy Donovan.

Like nearly everything else on the list, that self-aware entry would prove prophetic. Donovan did his best to avoid becoming an issue when he decided not to sign a contract extension last summer. "I knew if I did," he said, "then [agents] would go to Noah, Horford and Brewer and say, 'How do you feel that you turned down millions of dollars, and your coach did this?'" But it also meant that he wasn't caught completely off-guard when Tubby Smith left Kentucky to coach at Minnesota on March 22, thrusting Donovan (a former Wildcats assistant and Kentucky's top choice as Smith's replacement) into a Big Blue maelstrom right in the middle of Florida's NCAA tournament run.

"Sometimes coaching vacancies come open, and if people view that you're doing a good job, you're going to get attention on that," said Donovan, who issued pitch-perfect nondenial denials when asked last week if he'd had any contacts with Kentucky. "But I also understood: [That's why] I listed Billy Donovan as one of the 'Distractions.'"

An earlier crisis had come in February, and it was the kind of thing that can tear apart a team. ESPN's Dick Vitale was caught unaware on a Knoxville, Tenn., radio station telling friends that Donovan had told him (off the record) that Horford was a better pro prospect than Noah. While Donovan insisted that he had never said such a thing, he still had a swamp-sized mess to clean up. "What made me mad was the number of people who called me to talk about it," says Noah. "I couldn't imagine how much time I'd spend talking about this petty s---. Do you really think we came back for that? To go up against each other? Come on, we're trying to make history here."

To defuse the situation, Donovan convened a meeting with Noah and Horford in his Toyota Sequoia SUV--a favored place for private-but-informal discussions--on the way to the Gainesville airport the next day for a trip to Knoxville to play Tennessee. "People wanted to say, ' Shaq and Kobe! Horford and Noah aren't getting along because of the coach!'" said Donovan, screaming comically as if he were delivering a tabloid headline. "But handling things that are said in the media was also one of the distractions I anticipated."

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