To hear Florida
forward Joakim Noah tell the story, the notion of a repeat came up only
once--in Minneapolis, one of the Twin Cities, whose very nickname implies
replication. Maybe there was a hint of the Duke mystique lingering like carbon
14 in the Metrodome, the same building where, in 1992, Christian Laettner's
Blue Devils became the only team since '73 to win back-to-back NCAA men's
basketball titles. But as Gators coach Billy Donovan led his star sophomores to
the press conference after clinching a berth in last year's Final Four, he
turned giddy at the possibilities: "We're going to win it this year, and
then we're going to win it again next year, and you guys will be
remembered as one
of the best teams to ever play the game."
"It was like, 'Whoa, Coach, we haven't won nuthin' yet,'" says Noah,
the Gators' ponytailed talisman. "Besides, we didn't even know if we were
going to the NBA [after the season]."
But then a
remarkable scenario unfolded: Florida beat George Mason 73--58 in the semis and
dominated UCLA 73--57 in the final to win its first title. The three
sophomores-- Noah, center Al Horford and forward Corey Brewer--forsook NBA
riches to stay in school. And now, after a 29--5 season that has tested them in
new and sometimes confounding ways, Donovan's Gators have a chance to
accomplish one of the rarest feats in contemporary U.S. team sports. Consider:
In the 33 years since UCLA coach John Wooden (page 84) won his seventh straight
title, men's college basketball has had fewer repeat champions (one) than any
other major sport (page 48).
There are several
reasons, but perhaps the biggest of all is the six-game, single-elimination
crapshoot that has broken repeat aspirants even more fearsome than these
Gators. "The NCAA tournament is the most compelling sporting event in
America," says former UNLV guard Greg Anthony, whose 34--0
defending-champion Runnin' Rebels fell to Duke 79--77 in the 1991 national
semis. "And that's because it's the one sport where more often than not the
best team doesn't win. My team that lost to Duke was a better team than my team
that won it the year before."
Even now the odds
are stacked against Florida, the No. 1 overall seed. Statistical guru Ken
Pomeroy (kenpom.com) figures this year's favorite has only about a 1-in-5
chance of winning the title (more on that below)--and as favorites go, the
Gators are hardly invincible. In late February they lost three of four games,
all by double digits. And yet a funny thing happens when you ask the coaches of
other contenders a simple question: Who is the team to beat in this year's
says Ohio State's Thad Matta.
says Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie.
says Georgetown's John Thompson III.
Gators," says Kansas' Bill Self.