March 30, 2007

Final Four: Florida

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When Sports Illustrated published their annual college basketball issue this past fall, I was speechless. Shocked. Stupefied.

The theme was “Big Is Back,” and Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina and Georgetown graced four separate regional covers. Brian Butch, Julian Wright, Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert — but no Joakim Noah. Wait, didn’t he just set a NCAA tournament record with 29 blocks in six games on the way to the National title?

It was only last week, while feeding my insatiable appetite for tournament tidbits, that I stumbled across a blog entry that soothed my simmering indignation over the snub of the Gators. Apparently, Florida head coach Billy Donovan said “No, thanks,” when SI came calling, just the first of many polite refusals to the incessant media requests the Gators have fielded during their quest to become the first squad to earn a second consecutive national championship since Duke did it in 1991-92.

Outsiders may have doubted that Florida had the fire or the focus to defend their crown, but the Gators know better. This team is the mirror image of last year’s in more ways than one.

Yes, they return all five starters — shocking enough when there were millions on the table had Noah, Al Horford or Corey Brewer decided to try their luck in the NBA. But more importantly, they have the same attitude. During the 2005-06 season, Noah said the team’s motto was “Poor, hungry and driven.” This year’s mantra? “We win, we eat.” They know what it feels like to win it all, and they want to get back there more than anything else in the world.

I don’t need to run through the statistics. If you don’t know what this team is capable of, you don’t deserve to call yourself a fan of the game. Add point guard Taureen Green and outside threat Lee Humphrey to the mix, and the Gators field a formidable quintet that has the power, speed and smarts to match up with any team in the country. And for the doubters out there, just look at how they responded against Butler in the Sweet 16 or how they took care of business against Oregon in the Midwest Regional final.

Florida has more than the bodies to get the job done — the Gators have all the intangibles too. No one else in the Final Four knows what it takes to win a national championship. Florida has played with a bull’s eye on its back all season, and they expect to get the best each and every opponent has to offer whenever they step onto the floor. UCLA’s players and coaching staff can barely bring themselves to watch the tape of last year’s championship bout, and the Gators did similar damage to Ohio State with an 86-60 thumping in December. And as for Georgetown? Well, like I said, Hibbert was one of those “Big is Back” cover darlings, and I’m a true believer in the SI cover jinx.

Don’t listen to my colleagues — who I would call esteemed in every discussion except one concerning college basketball. Kyle’s brain cells have been the unfortunate victims of four years of fratastic drinking and regular hair-dye treatments, and long before that he lost the ability for rational thought whenever an L.A. team was involved. Tim has spent the past six months writing wrestling stories, and as much as he may have enjoyed watching scantily clad beefcakes grab each other inappropriately, I doubt it has equipped him to predict the outcome of a basketball game. Poor Cory is still wet behind the ears; he’s new to the editorial staff and hasn’t yet grasped the concept that I’m always right, regardless of the fact that I’ve kicked his ass in the office pool two years running.

Each March Madness brings its own unique charms. But this time around, take my word for it: we’ll all be feeling some déjà vu when Noah makes the hardwood in the Georgia Dome his dance floor and busts a move to celebrate another championship on Monday night.