A GUIDE TO JoakimNoah lingo: 1) The chip is the ultimate prize Florida won last spring, as in,"After we won the chip, my whole life changed." 2) A dog is not a badplayer but rather a hungry one, as in, "I don't want people at Florida toremember me as an All-American. I want them to say, 'He was a dog.'" 3) Aproblem is only problematic for opposing teams and thus serves, paradoxically,as a compliment. "When I look at Al Horford, he's a problem," saysNoah. "I play against the best big man in the country in practice, and somedays I get my a-- busted."
Considering thatNoah may actually be the nation's top big man, it's no leap to say the Gatorshave enough frontcourt problems to win another chip--but only if they answertheir doubters and play like total dogs. (Or something like that.) Noah andHorford, both juniors, turned down the chance to become NBA lottery picks inJune and returned to Gainesville, joining senior forward Chris Richard("the best 'nobody' in college basketball," says Florida assistantcoach Larry Shyatt) on a front line nonpareil. "These guys complement eachother really well," says Gators coach Billy Donovan. "Al iscompetitive, intelligent and focused. Chris is extremely reliable at blockingout. And Jo is always running, jumping and flying around. They all bringsomething different to the table."
And, to useanother of Noah's languages, they also bring a certain je ne sais quoi to thehoops landscape. How many big guys have the speed and stamina to be the frontmen in a full-court press? How many are comfortable dribbling upcourt to starta fast break? It's one of Florida's signature moves, which Horford initiatedafter he got a rebound during a game his freshman year and bypassed point guardAnthony Roberson, who was expecting an outlet pass. "I looked at him anddribbled straight up," Horford recalls. "Coach said, 'As long as youdon't turn the ball over, you can try to make something happen.'" Noah wasso impressed he started doing it himself. "You won't see that at otherschools," he says. "Coach gives us a lot of freedom."
Donovan alsohelps reel his stars in. Noah admits "there was no stability in mylife" in the days following the Gators' title run. "You get all thisattention," says Noah, who's still adjusting to his stardom and the impactit has had on team chemistry. "Your emotions are so high when you'replaying in the Final Four that it kind of numbs you. How do you get thatadrenaline back?"
It's the signalchallenge of Florida's quest to repeat, and one that Donovan has addressedrepeatedly with Noah. "Jo has to understand that he was an effective playerbecause of his effort," says Donovan. "He'd be dead-dog tired and justkeep on running." To ram home that idea, Donovan gave Noah a tape showinghow many of his baskets were the result of transition, offensive rebounds andassists. Then he went to work on Noah's mental game. "Coach said, 'Wouldyou trade [winning a title] for the way your life was before?'" Noah says."I was like, 'No way!' It put things in perspective."
While Noah isFlorida's emotional spark, Horford is the quiet leader whom Donovan trusts totake care of "any bad stuff creeping into our team," the coach says."He's good at seeing things." The prescient Horford can already predictthe dominant storyline for March. "We're not looking too far ahead," hesays, "but the matchup between bigs is going to be a big deal in thetournament." It may just decide--once again--who wins the chip.