Go-Go Gators

Behind center Joakim Noah's snarling, suffocating defense and a balanced, up-tempo attack, Florida cruised past UCLA to win its first basketball title
April 09, 2006

Joakim Noah neverstopped hopping. Not after he'd blocked six shots, setting NCAA tournament andchampionship-game records. Not after he'd devoured the rim, to say nothing ofUCLA, with a procession of ferocious dunks. And not even after the effervescentFlorida center had joined his Gators teammates on the victory stand at the RCADome in Indianapolis on Monday night. As Noah jumped up and down-a dozen, twodozen, three dozen times-he took his rightful place as the Most OutstandingPlayer of the 2006 Final Four and perhaps the long-sought solution to America'senergy crisis. "This is better than sex!" Noah exclaimed, thenclarified in case anyone forgot that he's half-French. "And trust me, I'mdoing it right." ¶ The Gators, 73-57 victors over the Bruins, had more thana few reasons to go orgasmic on everyone. Maybe it was the three straightthree-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 itwas the lockdown defense that forced the cowed Bruins into 36.1% shooting. Ormaybe it was just the Gators' remarkable journey from being unranked in thepreseason to the pinnacle of college basketball.

In the end,though, it all came back to Noah, who lorded over the title game with 16points, nine rebounds and those six blocks. Early in the first half he set thetone by rejecting the Bruins' 7-foot center, Ryan Hollins, and then luringguard Arron Afflalo into a traveling violation and some serious smack talk."I knew I was getting into his head," Noah would say later. "Whenhe 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 3for 10. And Noah was so confident that he began winking and blowing kisses atthe UCLA cheerleaders ... with nine minutes left in the game.

"He's reallylong, and he doesn't go for shot fakes," UCLA guard Jordan Farmar said ofthe Bruins' tormentor after the game. "A lot of bigs leave their feetbecause they want to block shots. He just uses his length to his advantage. Andhe changed about 10 more shots than he blocked."

Has any collegeplayer ever improved more between his freshman and sophomore years than Noah?"He just went out there and worked every single day," Florida coachBilly Donovan said on Monday night. "You could see him getting better andbetter and better."

In winning hisfirst national championship, the 40-year-old Donovan finally shed the nicknameBilly the Kid, showing just how much he had changed in the six years since heled the Gators to the title game in the same building (where they fell toMichigan State). Part of his evolution has been personal. Once a notoriousworkaholic, Donovan now takes a couple of hours every night, even during theseason, to chill out at home in Gainesville with his wife, Christine, and theirtwo sons (Billy, 14, and Bryan, 9), two daughters (Hasbrouck, 12, and Connor,4) and three dogs, including a black Labrador retriever named Alli Gator. Hegoes to his sons' basketball games, finds time to attend some of Hasbrouck'shorse shows and brings his dad, Bill, a former player at Boston College, on theteam plane to road games.

Billy was alsothere for his family after Christine had a miscarriage on the eve of the2000-01 season, staying home from work for a week. "Billy was a hugesupport system," she says. "Every time I'd had a kid, he hadn't stayedhome for more than an hour."

In some ways, ofcourse, Donovan is still the same old Billy D (minus the slicked-back EddieMunster coif). "I would say my personal habits have always been a littlebit bizarre," he says with a chuckle. A fitness fanatic, he's just aslikely to go on a four-mile run at midnight as at 5 a.m., and he often sleepsas little as two hours a night. After Donovan threw out his back jumping to hisfeet during a win at Kentucky last month, he ignored his trainer's commands totake it easy. Says Christine, shaking her head, "I had to put his shoes onfor him every morning, and he's still going and working out!"

Yet it's Donovan'sapproach to recruiting that has undergone the most striking transformation. In2000 his team was a reflection of its era, a hoops version of the brashlate-'90s Internet start-ups: The Gators defied tradition, hoarded top talentfrom across the nation and achieved near-instant success-mostly at the expenseof a suspicious (some would say jealous) Establishment. But during 2000, inGainesville as in Silicon Valley, the bubble burst. The Gators were stung byearly 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 the2001 draft, committed to the Gators but never even made it to campus.) In eachof the five years following the 2000 title-game run, Florida lost tolower-seeded teams during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

"Theperception surrounding our program was that we had these high-powered, overlytalented basketball teams, and I didn't think I'd done a very good job ofrecruiting," Donovan explained during a quiet moment in his Indianapolishotel room last week. "Guys were only staying one or two years, and I don'tthink I was prepared for that. The trick in college coaching now is being ableto 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 acoach you don't want to just win the battles in July [during the recruitingseason]. You want to win the battles in March."

While Donovan's2000 team featured four McDonald's High School All-Americans, his 2006champions had only one, sophomore swingman Corey Brewer, and yet his four-man2004 recruiting class will now go down as the most storied in Floridabasketball history. After Donovan lost his top three players from lastseason-David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh-the onus fell on theOh-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'sremarkable in today's college game. "I remember meeting these guys, and thefirst thing they said was, Let's go to the gym," recalls Horford. "Iwas like, Damn, they're already thinking about playing. When you hear that, youknow you're with guys who want to win."

Their effect ontheir coach has been startling: Donovan now sounds like an Internet-bustsurvivor who figured things out in the new economy, and the Gators look likethe Google guys of college basketball. "The more I do this, the more Ibelieve if you're building a successful company or program, so much of it comesdown to the makeup of the people, from your coaches to your players," saysDonovan. "What sets these kids apart isn't their talent. They allcomplement each other so well."

The Oh-Fours allhave their roles within the group. Brewer, a high-flying 6'8" matchup fromhell, exudes a laid-back cool beneath his headband. Green, the son of formerNBA player Sidney Green, yaps back and forth with the voluble Noah and wears apoint guard's chip on his shoulder. Meanwhile, Horford, the 6'9" son offormer NBAer Tito Horford, brings a sage, almost regal, unifying force to thequartet. "I feel like I'm probably the father figure," says Horford,who Donovan says is one of the smartest players he has ever coached. "Werun a lot of stuff on offense," the coach says, "and Al could probablytell you what all five guys should be doing."

Yet the supernovaof the entire tournament was Noah, who went from playing only two minutes totalin last year's NCAAs to assuming a dominant role this season, averaging 14.2points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Ranked only No. 68 in his high schoolrecruiting class, the 6'11", 227-pound Noah rose to potential NBA-lotterystatus in the past month by showing off a nonstop motor and a forcefulnessaround the basket that belied his nickname, Stickman (hung on him by TyroneGreen, his former summer-league coach in New York City, on account of hisonce-frail frame). So, Joakim was asked last week, is it time to abandon yourhandle 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 his autographs with astick figure.

The ponytailedNoah was also the MVP of the interview room last week, whether he was speakingin French to a reporter for L'Equipe, recounting his vomit-inducing workoutslast summer "when I could have stayed in bed all cozy with mygirlfriend" or laughing about the picture of him, which has been widelycirculated on the Internet, wearing a sort of giant full-length blue muumuu oncampus. Cecilia Rodhe, Noah's Swedish-born mother, likes to call her son an"African Viking," owing to his exotic bloodlines. His globe-trottingFrench-Cameroonian father, Yannick Noah, the tennis Hall of Famer, is now a popstar in Europe. And although Noah's parents divorced in 1989, his familycontingent in Indy-his sister, Yelena; his paternal grandmother, Marie-Claire;Yannick; and Cecilia-watched together from the stands last week. They all hadtheir own special memories of Joakim's meteoric rise to hoops stardom. WhenJoakim hugged his mother (a former Miss Universe finalist) after winning theMost Outstanding Player award at the Minneapolis Regional, she teared upthinking back to the days in New York City's Hell's Kitchen when her son was inthe seventh grade and she walked with him in the cold to enroll him in a PoliceAthletic League basketball program.

Yannick, for hispart, had sat angst-ridden in a Paris TV studio at 4 a.m. and watched the livebroadcast as Florida clinched its Final Four berth. Last week in Indianapolishe thought back to the trip he and his father, Zacharie, had made to see theGators play two home games in March. "It was good to be the three Noah boysagain," said Yannick, whose dad hadn't seen his grandson since Joakim'svisit 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 bigwhistle. Even with 14,000 people there, Jo looked up and raised his fist. Thatwas special."

So too, naturally,were the scenes in Indy. In their 73-58 semifinal win over George Mason, theGators abruptly ended the greatest Cinderella story in NCAA tournament historywithout a shred of remorse. So skilled were Noah and Horford that they put thelie to the adage that guards rule the NCAA tournament. "In March you needplaymakers and decision makers, and most of the time those guys are yourguards," says Donovan. "It's a little bit different for us because thedecision makers in a lot of what we do are Horford and Noah. A lot of ouroffense runs through those guys." Time and again last Saturday, Horford andNoah pulled down rebounds, only to forgo outlet passes and dribble to the frontof the Gators' fast break.

While Florida fanswere partying in the lobby of the Omni Severin hotel in downtown Indy justthree hours after the win over George Mason, Donovan and his staff gathered onefloor below in a windowless basement bunker to cram for UCLA. Assistant coachDonnie Jones edited clips of UCLA's offensive and defensive sets as the rest ofthe staff watched tape of the Bruins' tournament games. Standing before amassive dry-erase board, Donovan began drawing plays from the Bruins' screen-and stagger-heavy offensive sets, focusing on how to defend Farmar onpick-and-rolls. "You can have two guys go out and play Farmar, but thatwill 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 ourbigs and throw it out. Don't run two guys at the ball."

Florida's strategyworked to a tee against the Bruins. Farmar's high pick-and-rolls were harmless,and to stymie UCLA's three-point threat, Donovan sicced the 6'8" Brewer onAfflalo, who finished with only 10 points. Green went 1 for 9 from the floor,but he provided a dangerous spark all night. "Taurean was the one whoignited everything because he forced them to put two guys on him," Donovansaid, "and we threw the ball back to Jo, who was really able to put theball down and create."

Even thoughYannick's 1983 French Open championship took place two years before he wasborn, Joakim has seen the tape of his father's victory more than a dozen times.Whenever he watches, he'll replay the triumphant scene in which his grandfatherZacharie leaps out of the stands onto the Roland Garros clay and embracesYannick before an adoring French crowd. "Every time I watch, it gives meshivers," Joakim said last week. "It's pure, raw emotion. There'snothing fake about it."

Twenty-three yearslater, another touching championship moment between Noahs took place in the RCADome. In the delirium after the final horn, as a paper rainbow fell from therafters, Joakim climbed into the Florida cheering section. He hugged his motherfirst, then his sister, and then his father pulled him close until the two menwere cheek to cheek. "Je suis fier de toi," Yannick whispered in hisear. "Merci, merci." ("I am proud of you. Thank you, thankyou.")

"Jet'aime," Joakim replied. ("I love you.")

In Europe theyhave a way to hail transcendent performances, whether they take place in anopera house or a sports arena. So bravo, Joakim. Bravo, Oh-Fours. And bravo,Gators. You are the 2006 national champions, and there's nothing fake aboutthat.

SI.COM

More Final Four coverage, plus predictions for nextseason, at SI.com/collegebasketball.

SI.COM

THE WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
between Maryland and Duke was played after this issue went to press. Go toSI.com/basketball/ncaa for reports from Kelli Anderson and Richard Deitsch.Moretournament coverage, including exclusive photo galleries and analysis from SIexperts, at SI.com.

PHOTOPhotograph by John Biever NOAH'SARC
The Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, Noah (13) was a force at both ends ofthe floor, averaging 14.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
PHOTOBOB ROSATO ALL GROWNUP
In winning his first national championship, Donovan, 40, finally shed thenickname Billy the Kid.
PHOTOJOHN BIEVER BLOCKPARTY
Noah had five of his title-game-record six stuffs in the firsthalf.
PHOTOBOB ROSATOWRAPPED UP
The high-flying Brewer (2) presented a major matchup problem for Cedric Bozemanand the Bruins.
PHOTOBOB ROSATO FLORIDA'S KEY
Humphrey's 10 Final Four three-pointers included back-to-back treys that buriedUCLA early in the second half.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)