March 31, 2006

Sophomores Lead Driven Gators in Championship Chase

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Poor. Hungry. Driven.

Three words that embody Joakim Noah’s mantra this postseason, and three reasons the Florida men’s basketball team will be the ones wearing nets as necklaces and taking home the hardware on Monday night.

The Gators have the natural gifts of size, speed, athleticism, and length – all of which have been made more deadly by a monstrous work ethic and determination to succeed that has bound Billy Donovan’s boys together into a cohesive unit that will do whatever it takes to find a way to win against George Mason and will allow them to tame the Tigers or topple the Bruins when it comes time.

It looked as if Donovan had peaked too soon – his appearance in the 2000 Final Four was followed by ment at the hands of lower-seeded teams. Then came along a foursome of sophomores – Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, and Taurean Green, who, along with junior Lee Humphrey, have brought a tighter, tougher brand of basketball to Gainesville, Fla.

Noah is the emotional leader, the one who proclaimed that the Gators are still “PHD” even after claiming the Minneapolis Regional over Villanova, 75-62. The 6-11, 227-pound forward has filled the box score to bursting in the tournament with 17.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game. He’s become a media darling with a fascinating backstory that includes a father who won the French Open and a mother that once wore the crown of Miss Sweden. With that kind of pedigree, one thing is clear – he knows what it takes to be a champion. Having Noah on the floor is like playing with six men – he can rumble in the paint with the big men, and push the ball up the court like the guard he was before a growth spurt altered his basketball destiny.

“We’re the Gator boys. The Gator boys are hot right now,” Noah said after his team punched its ticket to the Final Four.

And the other boys – Horford, Brewer, Green, and Humphrey – are heating up right on schedule. Horford had a double-double against the Wildcats, and Green dropped 19. Humphrey was instrumental in the defensive shutout on the perimeter against Villanova, and if he and the Gator boys can shut down the most prolific guards in the country, mid-major George Mason won’t be a daunting challenge. People forget that Florida opened the season with a 17-game winning streak, but the Gators don’t care – they’re happy knowing that people will have to remember the six-game run that will take them to the national championship.

The ignorant masses will try to make the case that the Gators don’t have what it takes to go all the way – among them the other sportswriters here at The Sun. But why would you listen to them? Chris Mascaro’s basketball I.Q. stopped developing when he did – in seventh grade, when he was permanently demoted from shooting guard to left bench. Brian Tsao’s athletic inclinations lean towards Michael Chang rather than Yao Ming, and in his case, unlike Noah’s, tennis roots have not translated into hardcourt success. As for Per Ostman, the only way he would be able to predict a basketball champion is if he lost what little hair he has left and channeled Dick Vitale in a futile effort to use his bald dome as a crystal ball.

But don’t listen to me. Just sit back and watch – as the Gators shatter George Mason’s glass slipper into a million pieces, then have their way in the title game. Florida has been a cast-off all season long, short on respect but long on heart, and come Monday night, we’ll all be doing the Gator clap.

Olivia Dwyer is the Sun Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Thursday this semester

Archived article by Olivia Dwyer