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repeat champions used to be as common as Chuck Taylors. During the 28-year stretch ending in 1973, no major sport had more repeats than men's college basketball (11), and not all of them were claimed by UCLA. ( Oklahoma A&M took titles in 1945 and '46, Kentucky in 1948 and '49, San Francisco in 1955 and '56 and Cincinnati in 1961 and '62.) But aside from Laettner's Floorslappers (right), the last three decades have been marked by excruciating near misses, from Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma (1982--84) to Patrick Ewing's Georgetown marauders (1984--85) to Arkansas's 40 Minutes of Hell outfits (1994--95). UNLV and Kentucky might have pulled off repeats if not for a pair of ill-starred Andersons: Rebels guard Anderson Hunt, who missed a buzzer-beating three against Duke in '91, and Kentucky guard Derek Anderson, who sat out the '97 tournament after tearing his right ACL.
"Now that I'm older, I realize how rare it is," says former Kentucky guard Cameron Mills, whose Wildcats won titles in 1996 and '98 but lost the '97 final in overtime to Arizona. "We were a couple of jump shots away from a three-peat."
Why has the repeat spigot run dry since 1973? Here are a few explanations:
? The One (and Only One) Shining Moment syndrome. What's the point of returning to college when you've already reached the top? Florida is the first reigning champion since Arizona in 1998 to have all five of its starters return. "So many kids leave early to go to the NBA after winning a championship," says UCLA's Howland. "You just don't have the Bill Waltons and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars who stay for four years anymore." More common is the sort of mass exodus North Carolina experienced in 2005, when four Tar Heels left school early for the pros ( Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams).
? The parity principle. The tournament is filled with more dangerous teams than ever. On its soul-stirring run to last year's Final Four, 11th-seeded George Mason eliminated both the defending champion ( North Carolina) and a No. 1 seed ( Connecticut), providing inspiration for this year's midmajor giant-killers (page 58). A couple of factors have leveled the playing field. Midmajors have more experience than traditional powerhouses, which lose more players to the pros. What's more, the NCAA's reduction of scholarships from 15 to 13 per team in 1992 started a trickle-down effect: Lower-tier conferences could snap up players who might otherwise have landed in the Big East or Big Ten. As Gillispie points out, women's programs are still allowed 15 scholarships, which helps explain why only a few teams dominate the sport.
? The media maelstrom. Combined with the NCAA's $6 billion television deal with CBS, the rise of 24-hour all-sports media since the 1970s has transformed college hoops, intensifying the pressure on would-be repeaters. When Bill Walton won his last national title with UCLA in '73, he almost never spoke to the media. "It was much more of a regional sport," says Walton, who was uncomfortable doing interviews because he stuttered. "Now it's just overwhelming, the constant nature of the media beast that has to be fed."
After speaking last summer with Pat Riley and Bill Belichick--who have won back-to-back championships in the NBA and the NFL, respectively-- Donovan has tried to dam the flood of media attention this season. "Those guys talked about how there's only so much emotional energy [your players] have," says Donovan. " Noah's constantly being asked: Is your [ NBA draft] stock falling or is it up? Do you think coming back was a mistake? After a while that's draining." Donovan's firm stance meant turning down everything from SI's request to pose Noah and point guard Taurean Green on the season preview cover to countless interviews with media around the globe. ("I've been cussed out in 22 different languages," says Florida media spokesman Fred Demarest.)
? The supersized bracket. The single most important factor limiting repeats may well be the tournament's six-game, single-elimination format. While nobody should downgrade Wooden's feats--the man won 30 straight NCAA tournament games between 1967 and '74--it's true that winning a four-game tournament before '79 was exponentially easier than prevailing in the six-game format instituted in '85. When UCLA won in '72, seven teams from the Associated Press's pretournament Top 20 didn't even make the NCAA field of 25.
As Pomeroy notes, playing two fewer games in a diluted NCAA tournament field dramatically increases a favorite's prospects. The chances of a team's reeling off four straight victories in which it has an 80% likelihood of winning each game are 41%; the chances of a team's taking six straight in which it has a 70% likelihood of winning each game are a more daunting 11.8%. In light of those numbers, the right question may not be: Why has only one team repeated since 1973? Maybe it's: How the heck did Duke pull it off in 1992?