The Gators Again

April 09, 2007
April 09, 2007

Table of Contents
April 9, 2007

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
Pro Basketball

The Gators Again

Florida's NBA-ready stars postponed pro riches and returned to repeat as champions, securing a lofty place in college hoops history by outgunning a familiar foe--Ohio State--in the title game

Take a good, hardlook, America. In an era of me-first gunners, one-year supernovas (see you inthe NBA, Kevin Durant) and attention spans the length of a YouTube clip, it maybe a long, long time before we see another college basketball team like theseFlorida Gators. Just listen to forward Corey Brewer, a.k.a. the DrunkenDribbler (for his swerving forays to the hoop), who was as sober as a reverend(for a little while, at least) after his Gators claimed their second straightnational title on Monday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. "I feel like we'reone of the best college basketball teams to ever play the game," Brewersaid after Florida's 84--75 victory over Ohio State. "You can argue aboutit, but I'd put us up against anybody."

This is an article from the April 9, 2007 issue Original Layout

On Monday night itwasn't a hard case for Counselor Brewer to make. Not after the Gators haddestroyed Ohio State from three-point range, shooting 10 for 18 while holdingthe Buckeyes to a miserable 4 for 23. Or after forward Al Horford had danced aDominican merengue on his interior defenders to the tune of 18 points and 12rebounds. Or after Brewer, named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four,had blitzed Ohio State from every angle, producing three treys, three stealsand countless grimaces of frustration from his opponents.

If last year'schampions were the self-proclaimed Gator Boys, charming upstarts who rode aBanzai Pipeline wave to glory, then these titlists should go down as theHistory Boys, a once-in-a-generation collective that achieved one of the rarestfeats in modern American team sports. Only once in the past 33 years hadDivision I men's college basketball crowned a repeat champ--Duke, in 1991 and'92--and never had a reigning team overcome such an exhausting seasonlongbarrage of questions about its chances of winning back-to-back trophies.

On Monday all thosequestions were answered in full, leaving Florida fans to bask in the glow of anunprecedented run that now includes the last three national championships inthe two most popular college sports (two in basketball and one infootball--that one coming just three months ago against none other than OhioState, leaving Buckeyes fans feeling as if they've been struck down by somekind of blue-and-orange curse). Yet the legacy of the History Boys will go farbeyond mere trophies. "I'd like for this team to be remembered as thegreatest team that ever played," Gators coach Billy Donovan said afterward."I'm not saying this team would beat the UNLVs [of the early 1990s] and theUCLAs [of the John Wooden dynasty]. I'm not talking about wins and losses. I'mtalking about the word team."

By winning hissecond national championship, at age 41, Billy D launched himself into rarefiedair, becoming the youngest coach to claim his second championship ring sinceBob Knight (who was 40 when he won for the second time with Indiana, in 1981).From now on, coaches whose national-title teams return intact will useDonovan's masterly strategy as a case study on how to handle the pressure torepeat. It all started last April, not long after the Gators' NBA-ready stars(center Joakim Noah, Horford and Brewer) decided to postpone professionalriches and return to school, when Donovan sat down in his office and beganconstructing a list under the heading Distractions.

I love being alone,thinking and writing down my thoughts," Donovan said during a rare breakfrom game preparation in his Atlanta hotel last week. "I wanted to leave nostone unturned in getting our guys to be totally committed to our team. Therewere 10 to 15 potential distractions I looked at and said, 'These are thethings I have to be ready for.'" As Donovan's list grew, he realized justhow many pitfalls possibly awaited his team. Selfishness. Agents. Mediademands. Yet perhaps the most intriguing distraction he included was this one:Billy Donovan.

Like nearlyeverything else on the list, that self-aware entry would prove prophetic.Donovan did his best to avoid becoming an issue when he decided not to sign acontract extension last summer. "I knew if I did," he said, "then[agents] would go to Noah, Horford and Brewer and say, 'How do you feel thatyou turned down millions of dollars, and your coach did this?'" But it alsomeant that he wasn't caught completely off-guard when Tubby Smith left Kentuckyto coach at Minnesota on March 22, thrusting Donovan (a former Wildcatsassistant and Kentucky's top choice as Smith's replacement) into a Big Bluemaelstrom right in the middle of Florida's NCAA tournament run.

"Sometimescoaching vacancies come open, and if people view that you're doing a good job,you're going to get attention on that," said Donovan, who issuedpitch-perfect nondenial denials when asked last week if he'd had any contactswith Kentucky. "But I also understood: [That's why] I listed Billy Donovanas one of the 'Distractions.'"

An earlier crisishad come in February, and it was the kind of thing that can tear apart a team.ESPN's Dick Vitale was caught unaware on a Knoxville, Tenn., radio stationtelling friends that Donovan had told him (off the record) that Horford was abetter pro prospect than Noah. While Donovan insisted that he had never saidsuch a thing, he still had a swamp-sized mess to clean up. "What made memad was the number of people who called me to talk about it," says Noah."I couldn't imagine how much time I'd spend talking about this petty s---.Do you really think we came back for that? To go up against each other? Comeon, we're trying to make history here."

To defuse thesituation, Donovan convened a meeting with Noah and Horford in his ToyotaSequoia SUV--a favored place for private-but-informal discussions--on the wayto the Gainesville airport the next day for a trip to Knoxville to playTennessee. "People wanted to say, 'Shaq and Kobe! Horford and Noah aren'tgetting along because of the coach!'" said Donovan, screaming comically asif he were delivering a tabloid headline. "But handling things that aresaid in the media was also one of the distractions I anticipated."

Donovan had help,of course, none more so than from the Oh-Fours themselves, the roommates fromthe high school class of '04 who now must be considered one of the mostcohesive and storied units in the annals of college sports. The four-man suitethat houses Noah, Horford, point guard Taurean Green and Brewer looks just likeany other ordinary dorm room in the Keys Complex on Stadium Drive in the centerof the Florida campus, but the residents are pure sporting gold, a quartet thatDonovan knows may be a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting class. "I hopenot," he says of the group, which included only one McDonald's All-American(Brewer), "because this is what coaching should be like all the time. Ihave the joy and the hope that this could possibly happen again with thesetypes of kids."

The Oh-Fours neverfaced a more daunting challenge, though, than the slide in late February inwhich the Gators lost three of four games, all by double digits, raisingserious doubts about their chances for another title run. But then came anintervention that, according to everyone involved, changed their season. Lessthan 24 hours after the third defeat, an 86--76 loss at Tennessee on Feb. 27,Green's father, Sidney--a former NBA forward--took a day off from his job as ahotel executive in Orlando and made an emergency trip to Gainesville. When BigSid, as the Oh-Fours call him, met with his son at the campus bookstore, he wasshocked by his slumped body language and the filthy state of his Chevy Impala,which Taurean usually keeps spotless. Noah's bedroom was a mess too. The Gatorshad turned into a Behind the Music episode.

Over dinner thatnight at Yamato, the Oh-Fours' favorite Japanese steak house, Big Sid went towork. "You guys are 25--5, and you're acting like it's the end of theworld," he told the four roommates. "You're trying to live up toeveryone else's expectations, and you're pressing, and it shows." Theplayers nodded their heads, and a tearful Noah came clean. "You'reright," he said. "I'm not having any fun." To restore the sense ofyouthful wonder that drove them to last year's title, Sidney popped a copy ofthe Gators' breakout victory over Syracuse early last season into the DVDplayer back at the dorm.

On the screen was avision from a previous life, a band of brothers diving for loose balls, runningwith abandon and playing with the effervescent joy of an unranked team making agiant name for itself. The dorm room erupted. "They were jumping up anddown, yelling and rewinding and playing it back again," recalls Big Sid, a6'9" mountain of a man who starred at UNLV. "After they won the SECtournament, Joakim came to me and said, 'Big Sid, I want to thank you.' Itbroke me down right there."

After Big Sid'sintervention Florida never lost again. "I feel like that turned our seasonaround," says Horford. "After that night we talked to Coach Donovanabout it, and we told him, 'If we're going to go down, we're going to go downour way.'"

Suddenly Noah, inparticular, was smiling again. Few college athletes have had a more bracingintroduction to the peculiar American celebrity cycle than the ponytailedGators poster boy, who has gone from being a bench-warming freshman to the 2006Final Four MOP as a sophomore to college basketball's most vilified (and, yes,envied) athlete as a junior. Born in New York City to a French father (YannickNoah, the Hall of Fame tennis player) and a Swedish mother (sculptor CeciliaRodhe), Joakim is the most politically conscious hoops star since Bill Walton.A 7-foot peacenik, Joakim once marched outside the United Nations in an Iraqwar protest during which, as he recalled last week, he saw protesters beingdragged away by police. (Noah was presumably the only player watching C-Span inhis hotel during the Final Four and issuing a whoop of "My guy!" whenBarack Obama appeared on the screen.)

Noah, a dualcitizen of France and the U.S., calls Gainesville "Real America," aplace where he says he has learned tolerance for people who don't share hisworldview. "I've met people like Coach Donovan, who is a Republican and apretty conservative guy, but he's been like another father figure to me,"Noah says. "It just showed me you don't have to have the same politicalviews to get along."

Like a hoopsversion of Bernard Henri-Lévy or Alexis de Tocqueville, two other philosophicalFrenchmen who became expert observers of America, Noah is familiar with boththe highbrow--his mother is a friend of the famed architect Frank Gehry--andthe lowbrow. And you don't get much more lowbrow than some of the entries onFacebook, the social networking website used primarily by college students.Facebook had 170 different pages devoted to Noah as of last week, most of themwith titles like Joakim Noah Looks Like Chewbacca (623 members), I'd Pay Good $to Punch Joakim Noah in the Face (134 members) and Joakim Noah Is about As CoolAs AIDS (515 members).

"When peopledon't know you, who cares what they think?" Noah said last week. "ButI've gone through more good than bad at the University of Florida, and I'velearned so much this year." Foremost among those lessons: that when itcomes to this country's celebrity culture, you have to take the good with thebad. "People talk about Joakim being French and African and Swedish,"says his mother, "but he was born in the U.S., and this country has givenhim his big break. We feel very lucky."

After the nightwith Big Sid, Noah reminded himself to savor the private moments over the pastmonth, like the time he and the Oh-Fours went to the Gainesville Chili's afterwinning the SEC tournament title and encountered student manager Kyle Gilreath,who sent them a round of shots to celebrate. "Thanks, man!" they yelledback, only to laugh upon discovering the shots were just Grenadine-flavoredwater. ("I have friends who are managers at other schools who say[negative] things about their players," says Gilreath, "but these guysare just awesome kids, like brothers [to each other].")

Senior guard LeeHumphrey isn't an Oh-Four, but he might as well be an honorary member. Andwhile Florida's juniors didn't flinch in Saturday's 76--66 national semifinalwin over UCLA, it was Humphrey who broke open a Final Four game with a barrageof second-half three-pointers for the third straight time over the past twoyears. "If we're all hitting our threes, it makes us tough to guard becauseour bigs can score as well," said Humpty, whose trio of second-half treys(and 14 points) were the result of UCLA's decision to double-team Florida'spost players. "[The Bruins] did a good job taking our bigs out, but it leftus wide open on the perimeter."

As Gators fanspartied in the lobby of the downtown Marriott after the game, the Floridacoaching staff (Donovan and assistants Donnie Jones, Larry Shyatt and LewisPreston) gathered in a meeting room to discuss a game plan for Ohio State.Seated in front of the TV with a remote in one hand and a legal pad in his lap,Donovan started the DVD from the Gators' 86--60 win over the Buckeyes on Dec.23 in Gainesville. As the clock struck 2 a.m., they noticed a few weaknessesthey hoped to exploit: that point guard Mike Conley Jr. was less effectivedriving to his right than to his left and that Ohio State's defenders hardlyever double-teamed in the post. "I think our guys can get some good looksinside," Donovan reasoned.

But they had plentyof concerns, too, not least the Buckeyes' rising confidence (from a 23-gamewinning streak) and their lethal fast break. Perhaps most surprising was thatthe Gators coaches were more worried about Ohio State's transition game thanabout 7-foot freshman center Greg Oden's inside presence. "Their speed andspacing are incredible," said Donovan, deciding not to roll out Florida'sown formidable running game. "We have to slow it down."

"We've got totake away their transition. Key to the game," said Shyatt, one of thenation's top defensive minds, who suffered a bizarre mishap just after 2 a.m.when his dental bridge popped out while he was munching on some Jujubes. Shyattshowed the bridge to everyone in the room ("That's awesome," Donovansaid) before bolting down the hall, where his brother-in-law, a dentist, wasable to snap the bridge back in so Shyatt could return to work, breaking downfilm. (Winning a repeat national crown is a gritty business, folks.)

On Monday night theGators' strategy worked to perfection. Florida elected not to double-team Odenfrom the opening tip, the better to let its perimeter defenders prevent OhioState from taking easy open three-pointers. And while Oden had a monster game,piling up 25 points and 12 rebounds, the Buckeyes' futility from three-pointrange was epic. "We felt like their two-point shots couldn't beat us, so wewanted to take away the three," explained Brewer, who kept sharpshootingguard Ron Lewis from making a single trey in just four attempts.

In the end, it wasthe Gators' attention to Lewis and a thousand other tiny details over the pasttwo years that leaves us with the singular impression of a transcendent teamfor the ages. As he left the Georgia Dome floor on Monday, Noah gazed skywardand issued a plea. "Remember us! Remember us!" he screamed to theheavens. "We belong with the great ones!"

Yes, you do. Trustus: Nobody will forget the History Boys.


More Coverage

The women's NCAA championship game between Rutgers andTennessee was played after this issue went to press. Go for complete postgame analysis from Kelli Anderson andTracy Schultz. ONLY AT SI.COM

This team should go down as the HISTORY BOYS, aonce-in-a-generation collective that achieved one of the rarest feats insports.
The Gators' late-season slide raised doubts about theirtitle chances. But then came the INTERVENTION that changed their season.
Noah gazed skyward and issued a plea. "Remember us!Remember us!" he screamed to the heavens. "We belong with the GREATONES!"
PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoLONG SHOT Humphrey, the most prolific three-point shooter in NCAA tournament history, went 4 for 7 from beyond the arc to help sink the Buckeyes, giving him a record 47 treys in 15 postseason games.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (HORFORD)PHOTOBOB ROSATO (BREWER) TIGHT FOCUS Brewer, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, burned the Buckeyes in every way, while fellow junior Horford (42) was a force at both ends of the floor, putting up 18 points and pulling down 12 rebounds.PHOTOBOB ROSATOFAB FIVE With Humphrey, Noah, Green, Horford and Brewer, Florida became the first team to repeat with the same starting lineup.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHGATOR AID Noah struggled against OSU with early foul trouble, but his frontcourtmates picked up the slack, much as they had supported one another all season.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (ODEN)GO FOR TWO Donovan's decision not to double-team Oden (20) put the chill on the Buckeyes' long-distance shooters.PHOTO JOHN BIEVER (DONOVAN)[See Caption Above]