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Joakim Noah never stopped hopping. Not after he'd blocked six shots, setting NCAA tournament and championship-game records. Not after he'd devoured the rim, to say nothing of UCLA, with a procession of ferocious dunks. And not even after the effervescent Florida center had joined his Gators teammates on the victory stand at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis on Monday night. As Noah jumped up and down-a dozen, two dozen, three dozen times-he took his rightful place as the Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 Final Four and perhaps the long-sought solution to America's energy crisis. "This is better than sex!" Noah exclaimed, then clarified in case anyone forgot that he's half-French. "And trust me, I'm doing it right." � The Gators, 73-57 victors over the Bruins, had more than a few reasons to go orgasmic on everyone. Maybe it was the three straight three-pointers to start the second half, two of them by guard Lee Humphrey, which blew open the game and staked Florida to an 18-point lead. Or maybe it was the lockdown defense that forced the cowed Bruins into 36.1% shooting. Or maybe it was just the Gators' remarkable journey from being unranked in the preseason to the pinnacle of college basketball.
In the end, though, it all came back to Noah, who lorded over the title game with 16 points, nine rebounds and those six blocks. Early in the first half he set the tone by rejecting the Bruins' 7-foot center, Ryan Hollins, and then luring guard Arron Afflalo into a traveling violation and some serious smack talk. "I knew I was getting into his head," Noah would say later. "When he traveled, I told him he was scared. He said he was going to f-- me up. Well, guess who won?" Frustrated all evening, Afflalo ended up shooting just 3 for 10. And Noah was so confident that he began winking and blowing kisses at the UCLA cheerleaders ... with nine minutes left in the game.
"He's really long, and he doesn't go for shot fakes," UCLA guard Jordan Farmar said of the Bruins' tormentor after the game. "A lot of bigs leave their feet because they want to block shots. He just uses his length to his advantage. And he changed about 10 more shots than he blocked."
Has any college player ever improved more between his freshman and sophomore years than Noah? "He just went out there and worked every single day," Florida coach Billy Donovan said on Monday night. "You could see him getting better and better and better."
In winning his first national championship, the 40-year-old Donovan finally shed the nickname Billy the Kid, showing just how much he had changed in the six years since he led the Gators to the title game in the same building (where they fell to Michigan State). Part of his evolution has been personal. Once a notorious workaholic, Donovan now takes a couple of hours every night, even during the season, to chill out at home in Gainesville with his wife, Christine, and their two sons (Billy, 14, and Bryan, 9), two daughters (Hasbrouck, 12, and Connor, 4) and three dogs, including a black Labrador retriever named Alli Gator. He goes to his sons' basketball games, finds time to attend some of Hasbrouck's horse shows and brings his dad, Bill, a former player at Boston College, on the team plane to road games.
Billy was also there for his family after Christine had a miscarriage on the eve of the 2000-01 season, staying home from work for a week. "Billy was a huge support system," she says. "Every time I'd had a kid, he hadn't stayed home for more than an hour."
In some ways, of course, Donovan is still the same old Billy D (minus the slicked-back Eddie Munster coif). "I would say my personal habits have always been a little bit bizarre," he says with a chuckle. A fitness fanatic, he's just as likely to go on a four-mile run at midnight as at 5 a.m., and he often sleeps as little as two hours a night. After Donovan threw out his back jumping to his feet during a win at Kentucky last month, he ignored his trainer's commands to take it easy. Says Christine, shaking her head, "I had to put his shoes on for him every morning, and he's still going and working out!"
Yet it's Donovan's approach to recruiting that has undergone the most striking transformation. In 2000 his team was a reflection of its era, a hoops version of the brash late-'90s Internet start-ups: The Gators defied tradition, hoarded top talent from across the nation and achieved near-instant success-mostly at the expense of a suspicious (some would say jealous) Establishment. But during 2000, in Gainesville as in Silicon Valley, the bubble burst. The Gators were stung by early departures for the NBA by Mike Miller, Donnell Harvey and Kwame Brown, who stayed a combined three seasons at Florida. ( Brown, the No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft, committed to the Gators but never even made it to campus.) In each of the five years following the 2000 title-game run, Florida lost to lower-seeded teams during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
"The perception surrounding our program was that we had these high-powered, overly talented basketball teams, and I didn't think I'd done a very good job of recruiting," Donovan explained during a quiet moment in his Indianapolis hotel room last week. "Guys were only staying one or two years, and I don't think I was prepared for that. The trick in college coaching now is being able to get those next-tier guys who are ranked in the top 25 to 100 of their class, who love the game, are highly competitive and have a good work ethic. As a coach you don't want to just win the battles in July [during the recruiting season]. You want to win the battles in March."
While Donovan's 2000 team featured four McDonald's High School All-Americans, his 2006 champions had only one, sophomore swingman Corey Brewer, and yet his four-man 2004 recruiting class will now go down as the most storied in Florida basketball history. After Donovan lost his top three players from last season- David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh-the onus fell on the Oh-Fours: Brewer, point guard Taurean Green and big men Noah and Al Horford. Roommates since their first day on campus, they developed a chemistry that's remarkable in today's college game. "I remember meeting these guys, and the first thing they said was, Let's go to the gym," recalls Horford. "I was like, Damn, they're already thinking about playing. When you hear that, you know you're with guys who want to win."