They're History: Gators Score Rare Championship Double

With their second straight title, Florida thrusts its name into a historical discussion

April 3, 2007

By Bryan Armen Graham

CSTV.com

 



BRYAN GRAHAM

Bryan is a basketball editor for CSTV.com and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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ATLANTA - Whether your beverage of choice is champagne or club soda or Hatorade, it's time to lift your glass and toast the Florida Gators: one of the greatest teams in the history of college basketball.

 

Not enough time has passed to determine Florida's exact place within the pantheon of the historical elite. But the one thing that became certain sometime late Monday night was that the Gators, with their 84-75 victory over Ohio State at the Georgia Dome, have earned a permanent place in the barroom discussion.

 

On merit.

 

"You can argue it," kept repeating Corey Brewer, who averaged 15.8 points during the tournament to garner Most Outstanding Player honors. "You can argue it. But you got to put us up there."

 

One-time champions of this event will always be vulnerable to their critics due to the very nature of basketball -- a momentum-driven and sometimes-arbitrary game of runs where the better team doesn't always win. Even on the eve of last season's national semifinals in Indianapolis, Florida coach Billy Donovan insisted there would be 10 different Final Fours if the tournament was re-run 10 different times.

 

But the list of two-time winners is so brief -- only six teams prior to Monday had turned the trick throughout history with five of those repeating before the tournament was expanded to 64 teams -- that it's simply impossible to exclude Florida from the short list.

 

"I sit up here very humbled because I think I was fortunate enough over the last two years to coach a group of guys that has to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all-time," Donovan said. "I'm not saying they were the most talented and I'm not saying that they were flawless. But when you talk about the word 'team' and what this team accomplished in terms of unselfishness and sacrifice and playing together, they have got to be considered in my opinion one of the best teams to ever play."

 

Ohio State coach Thad Matta, visibly drained just minutes after seeing his team's 22-game win streak snapped in the program's first national title game appearance since 1962, wouldn't disagree.

 

"They've really got everything, you know? We made some major, major mistakes defensively and great teams make you pay," the third-year coach of the Buckeyes said. "I would put them in a category of probably one of the best teams to win. You're going to see those guys playing a lot of basketball for many years ahead."

 

The game itself, which has become almost secondary in the historical afterglow, was vintage Florida: No one player was more conspicuous than the next. Al Horford (18 points), Taurean Green (16), Lee Humphrey (14) and Brewer (13) remained so close to one another within the scoring column throughout the night that determining the team's most valuable player seemed both impossible and irrelevant.

The crowd of 51,458 witnessed one of Greg Oden's most commanding performances as a collegian as the Ohio State freshman finished with a game-high 25 points (including five dunks) while grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking four shots. But a large part of the seven-footer's prolific performance could be credited to Florida's design as Donovan's strategy involved concessions on the interior to maintain a staunch defense of the perimeter -- forcing the Buckeyes to beat the Gators with two-point shots.

 

Ohio State made just 4-of-23 (17.4 percent) of their attempts from beyond the arc.

 

"I really felt like the three-point line was so critical in the game," Donovan said. "Where they're a major problem is when Oden's getting his 18 or 20 -- and you look down and they made nine or 10 or 11 three-point shots."

 

The result was an unprecedented number of fouls from the four pure interior players in Florida's regular rotation -- Noah, Horford, Chris Richard and Marreese Speights. The foursome, which hadn't combined for more than 11 fouls in a single game throughout 39 previous contests, exhausted 15 hacks while attempting to corral the formidable first-year center.

 

But the strategy worked to perfection. And after Richard's emphatic put-back dunk with 18:10 remaining in the second half opened a 44-36 lead, the Buckeyes would not again close within two possessions of the Florida advantage.

 

"We tried to make runs throughout the game," said Ohio State point guard Mike Conley, Jr., who finished with 20 points and a team-high six assists after battling first-half foul trouble. "Their key players stepped up in big-time situations. That's why they're national champions again."

 

In the end, the discussion turned to Florida and the historical significance of the back-to-back titles -- an accomplishment so difficult in this day and age that only Duke has managed a successful national title defense (in 1992) since the tournament was expanded to its current six-round format in 1985.

 

Donovan cited the increased number of student-athletes leaving school early, a spike in the transfer rate and NCAA limitations on scholarships among the factors which have made repeating so much more difficult in this modern age. But through an equal-opportunity and balanced approach to offense and defense, the Gators have achieved what many believed impossible in November.

 

"It's an incredible feeling," said Donovan, who becomes the fourth active coach to win multiple national titles. "But I'm very humbled, I really am. When you get to this point, you can see how fragile it all is, how nobody has figured it out. I sit here humbled and very grateful being able to be a part of two national championships."