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While Donovan's 2000 team featured four McDonald's High School All-Americans, his '06 champions had only one, sophomore swingman Corey Brewer, yet his four-man '04 recruiting class will 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."
Their effect on their coach has been startling: Donovan now sounds like an Internet-bust survivor who figured things out in the new economy, and the Gators look like the Google guys of college basketball. "The more I do this, the more I believe if you're building a successful company or program, so much of it comes down to the makeup of the people, from your coaches to your players," says Donovan. "What sets these kids apart isn't their talent. They all complement each other so well."
The Oh-Fours all have their roles. Brewer, a high-flying 6' 8" matchup from hell, exudes a laid-back cool beneath his headband. Green, the son of former NBA player Sidney Green, yaps with the voluble Noah and wears a point guard's chip on his shoulder. Horford, the 6' 9" son of former NBAer Tito Horford, brings a sage, almost regal, unifying force to the quartet. "I feel like I'm probably the father figure," says Horford, who Donovan says is one of the smartest players he has ever coached. "We run a lot of stuff on offense," the coach says, "and Al could probably tell you what all five guys should be doing."
Yet the supernova of the tournament was Noah, who went from playing two minutes total in last year's NCAAs to assuming a dominant role this season, averaging 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Ranked only No. 68 in his high school recruiting class, the 6' 11", 227-pound Noah rose to potential NBA-lottery status in the past month by showing off a nonstop motor and a forcefulness around the basket that belied his nickname, Stickman (hung on him by Tyrone Green, his former summer-league coach in New York City, on account of his once-frail frame). So, Joakim was asked, Is it time to abandon your handle now that you're filling out? "Nah, I'm always going to be Sticks, even if I get buff," said Noah, who likes to adorn autographs with a stick figure.
The ponytailed Noah was also the MVP of the interview room last week, whether speaking in French to a reporter for L'�quipe; recounting his vomit-inducing workouts last summer "when I could have stayed in bed all cozy with my girlfriend"; or laughing about the picture of him, which has been widely circulated on the Internet, wearing a sort of giant full-length blue muumuu on campus. To be precise, Noah noted, it was a northern African jellaba, a gift from his father. "I always wear it when I just want to relax," Noah explained. "You don't have any underwear on, and the air's going up there. It's a great feeling." ("He thinks it's sexy," says Taurean Green, rolling his eyes, "but we just think it's ugly.")
Cecilia Rodhe, Noah's Swedish-born mother, likes to call her son an "African Viking," owing to his bloodlines. His globe-trotting French-Cameroonian father, Yannick Noah, the tennis Hall of Famer, is now a pop star in Europe. And although Noah's parents divorced in 1989, his family contingent in Indy--his sister, Yelena, his paternal grandmother, Marie-Claire, Yannick, and Cecilia--watched together from the stands last week. They all had their own memories of Joakim's meteoric rise to hoops stardom. When Joakim hugged his mother (a former Miss Universe finalist) after winning the most outstanding player award at the Minneapolis Regional, she teared up thinking back to the days in New York City's Hell's Kitchen, when her son was in the seventh grade and she walked with him in the cold to enroll him in a Police Athletic League basketball program.
Yannick, for his part, had sat in a Paris TV studio at 4 a.m. and watched the live broadcast as Florida clinched its Final Four berth. In Indianapolis he thought back to the trip he and his father, Zacharie, had made to see the Gators play two home games in March. "It was good to be the three Noah boys again," said Yannick, whose dad hadn't seen his grandson since Joakim's visit to Cameroon last summer. "Our flight was late, so when we arrived, the game had already started. There was a timeout, and my dad let go with a big whistle. Even with 14,000 people there, Jo looked up and raised his fist. That was special."
So too, naturally, were the scenes in Indy. In the Gators' 73-58 semifinal win over George Mason, Noah and Horford ended the greatest Cinderella story in tournament history without a shred of remorse. Not only did they limit the Patriots' big men, Jai Lewis and Will Thomas, to a combined 9-for-25 shooting, but they also altered innumerable shots and ruled the boards, piling up 21 rebounds. Even more impressive, Noah and Horford were also Florida's top assist men against Mason. "One of the strengths of our big guys is how they pass," says Humphrey, whose three rapid-fire three-pointers--two of which came on assists from Horford and Noah--sank the Patriots in the second half.
So skilled were Noah and Horford that they put the lie to the adage that guards rule the NCAA tournament. "In March you need playmakers and decision makers, and most of the time those guys are your guards," says Donovan. "It's a little bit different for us because the decision makers in a lot of what we do are Horford and Noah. A lot of our offense runs through those guys." Time and again against the Patriots, Horford and Noah pulled down rebounds, only to forgo outlet passes and dribble to the front of the Gators' fast break.
While Florida fans were partying in the lobby of the Omni Severin hotel in downtown Indy just three hours after the win over George Mason, Donovan and his staff gathered one floor below in a basement bunker to cram for UCLA. Assistant coach Donnie Jones edited clips of UCLA's offensive and defensive sets as the rest of the staff watched tape of the Bruins' tournament games. Standing before a massive dry-erase board, Donovan began drawing plays from the Bruins' screen- and stagger-heavy offensive sets, focusing on how to defend Farmar on pick-and-rolls. "You can have two guys go out and play Farmar, but that will leave one of their bigs wide open, and that's exactly what they want," Donovan said. "You want to make [Farmar] turn the corner and take it to our bigs and throw it out. Don't run two guys at the ball."