Addition by Subtraction Equals a Championship

By shedding its so-called stars, Billy Donovan's Gators found a way to soar to new heights

April 3, 2006

 

 

By Bryan Armen Graham

Assistant Editor, CSTV.com

 



BRYAN GRAHAM

Bryan is a basketball editor for CSTV.com and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- When Adrian Moss put down a four-foot jumper that gave Florida a 15-8 lead Monday night -- early as it may have been into its national championship tangle with UCLA -- it became clear that the Bruins were only going to win this game if the Gators decided to give it away.

 

Even though the contest was less than seven minutes old, the senior forward had already become the sixth Florida player to record a field goal. As of a result of that offensive balance, it wouldn't have mattered if the opponent Monday night was UCLA or Connecticut or Duke or Texas or Memphis or any of the other teams that received more praise and pub from the national media from October through February.

 

"We felt we had to prove something to everybody coming out every game," said Taurean Green, whose game-high eight assists more than compensated for a season-low two points. "We didn't get any respect."

 

The Gators didn't finish their championship season with more made shots (1,061) than misses (1,059) -- a lights-out clip that ranked second in Division I by a thousandth of a percentage point -- because they had the best shooters, but because they used team play to find and take the best shots, night in and night out.

 

Their 73-57 victory to secure the program's first-ever national title was a season in microcosm.

 

The Gators had 21 assists on 26 field goals. Because of their willingness to make the extra pass and find the open man, many of Florida's misses were prettier than most of their opponent's makes. By way of this impeccable teamwork, the Gators were able to overcome the two things that no one in this tournament field had previously been able to surmount: George Mason's hunger and UCLA's defense.

 

"Unselfish" has been used ad nauseam to describe this club since it won the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic at Madison Square Garden all the way back in November. If I had a nickel for every time the Florida coaches and players used the buzz word during my four days in Indianapolis, I could have gone home and retired days ago.

 

Yet before long, these myriad references to "last year" almost sounded like a subtle indictment of that team's stars.

 

By now, it's no secret that Florida lost its three premier players from a season ago to graduation or the NBA Draft. Though David Lee was never the focal point of criticism for the program's inability to win the big one in recent years, both Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson took their knocks for what was perceived as selfish play.

 

No disrespect to the departed, both of whom will make fine livings for themselves as professionals, but Walsh and Roberson hoisted up more ill-advised shots in any given week than this year's Gators took in a month.

 

The balanced offense of this season's Florida team that saw all five starters average in double figures provided sharp contrast to last year's star-driven unit -- which saw Lee, Roberson and Walsh account for 65 percent of the team's total offense.

 

"All the talk was about Anthony, Matt and David leaving," Green said. "Those three are great players, but we have a bunch of good players that returned. We just wanted to prove to everybody that we can play."

 

No team had hung more points on the Bruins since Memphis in the Preseason NIT -- the night before Thanksgiving. UCLA hadn't lost a game in 42 days and had surrendered just 53.9 points per game during that span. On Monday night, Florida dissected a Ben Howland defense that had held three of five NCAA Tournament opponents to 45 points or less.

 

"I'm just so proud of my teammates right now," said Noah, the gregarious sophomore who finds open teammates with 15-foot bounce passes out of double-teams with the savvy of a senior point guard and not a sophomore pivot man. "It was definitely a team effort."

 

Noah would finish with 16 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots -- a championship game record -- on his way to Most Outstanding Player honors.

 

"Sometimes when kids are young and they have success and they get attention, they have a tendency to become complacent," Donovan said. "When [Joakim] started getting attention, he tried to deflect it as best he could toward our team."

 

The second half was more coronation than competition, as Lee Humphrey wasted no time putting down a pair of three-pointers to open a 17-point lead. Seven of Florida's field goals after the break were dunk shots, including no less than four disgusting highlight-reel throwdowns by Noah -- the closest thing to a star on a team that's defined itself by its lack thereof. It was the pinnacle exhibition of Florida's team play: 12 assists on 14 baskets.

 

"At the end of the day it's not about who's blocking shots and who is getting the stats," Noah said. "It's about getting Ws and winning the game."

 

Bryan Armen Graham is an Assistant Editor for CSTV.com. Got a comment? Write Bryan and let him know.