Tuesday, April 03, 2007

"2006-07 Gators: One of the best teams ever"

One more year?

Why not? A year ago Florida juniors Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer shocked the basketball establishment by returning for their junior year - along with junior Taurean Green and senior Lee Humphrey.

Now they have two national championships in a row and plenty of love from Gator Nation.

So why not come back for a senior year? They've already stunned us once. Another shock wouldn't hurt. They could become the only team besides John Wooden's dominant Bruins to win three consecutive titles. And surely if the players returned, there'd be no way Billy Donovan could bolt for Kentucky.

It's fun to think about, even though it's very unrealistic.

On Monday night the Gators showed exactly why they've been the best college basketball team each of the past two years. They played as one. They didn't play like a group of future first-round draft picks (that was Greg Oden's job); they played like a scrappy group of college kids just having a blast in the gym.

Horford exemplified this best. He was literally all over the 94-foot hardwood, getting every single loose ball, especially on the offensive end. If the Gators took a bad shot, there would be Horford to collect the rebound. And almost every time this occurred, Florida hit a 3-pointer, whether it was Humphrey (four 3s), or Brewer or Green (three 3s apiece), which absolutely broke Ohio State’s back.

Florida outrebounded Ohio State 38-27, a similar margin to when the Gators trounced the Buckeyes 86-60 in December.

Throughout the game, Ohio State hung around, and you had to think the Buckeyes had a run in them. After all, they came back from a 20-point deficit against Tennessee in the regional semifinals. But every time they got within six or seven points - the closest they got in the second half - Florida responded with a big shot. It wasn't one particular player (even freshman Marreese Speights, who didn't play the last three games, hit a key second-half jumper). Just a player in a white uniform giving Buckeyes’ fans another national championship game headache.

And that was the thing about these Gators. If the opponent focused on one, or even two guys, someone else was going to burn it. Noah had his worst game of the NCAA tournament, scoring just eight points - including one field goal - and grabbing three rebounds in 21 minutes. But did he care that his teammate Brewer got he MOP award for the Final Four or that his teammate Horford will be remembered as the big man who had the splendid game?

Of course not. After the game, Noah was his jubilant self, forecasting a crazy, long-lasting party down in Gainesville in the coming weeks.

Should be wild.

Following the game, Donovan said these Gators should go down as one of the greatest college teams of all time. These were strong words, considering the teams at the top of this list: The 1945-46 Oklahoma A&M Cowboys; the 1955-56 San Francisco Dons led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones; the 1961-62 Cincinnati Bearcats; obviously Wooden's Bruins, who won 10 titles in 12 years; and Christian Laettner's Blue Devils in the early 1990s.

But Donovan is right. As far as being a championship team, no one did it better than the Gators. With the exception of the Bearcats, who featured a balanced attack, all of the other repeat champions had a star player. Oklahoma A&M had Bob Kurland, basketball's first 7-footer. The Dons, of course, had Russell. The Bruins had a wealth of talent, but it was highlighted by Lew Alcindor in the later 1960s and Bill Walton in the early '70s. And Laettner is considered one of the best college players of all time.

None of these Gators will go down as one of college basketball's greatest players. Heck, a couple decades from now we may not even recall their names. But as a group, as a unit, they will never be forgotten.

Sure, the thought of one more year must be enticing. A third national title, and they could really throw a party in Gainesville, a Mardi Gras of sorts.

But don't expect this crew to return. After all, Humphrey is graduating, and you know what they say about puzzles.

If you lose one piece, they just aren't the same.


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