Looking Out For No. 1


Oct. 16, 2006

By Jeff Lippman

Special to CSTV.com


Jeff Lippman

Jeff is CSTV.com's lead women's basketball writer.
E-mail here!

This isn't the first time a No. 1 ranking and its evil twin hype have sauntered into Gainesville and ritualistically rain-danced around the Gators men's basketball team.


In fact, it has happened twice before, in the middle of the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons. Both times Florida wilted to the pressure-packed hex cast upon them, losing games the next week and losing the top spot in the process.


So, as Midnight Madness looms on Friday and UF prepares to open a season as defending national champions for the first time, it begs the question: why won't these Gators get steamrolled by the same hype and expectations that ruined them in the past? 


They might. Then again, these aren't your garden variety Gators.


Last year's team was not supposed to contend for a national title. They weren't supposed to win an SEC tournament championship. Taurean Green wasn't supposed to be able to handle the point so smoothly. Joakim Noah wasn't supposed to be an NCAA tournament MVP and National Player of the Year candidate.


Guess what? What wasn't supposed to happen...yeah, it all happened.


In the past, hype hurt the Gators. Last year, there was no hype, ergo the Gators won the title. This year the Gators are hands down favorites to repeat, a feat that has only been managed once since 1974 (Duke: 1991 and 1992), and the hype is being blasted at them like bullets from a machine gun.


So, why are these Gators like supermen, with the hype bullets ricocheting off their chests? Because they are essentially the same team. With 10 scholarship players returning, including the entire starting five, they've done it before. They know they can do it again.


"Like at the beginning of last year, our goal is to make a run in the tournament and win it all, we did that so we are going to go into this year with the same mindset," said junior forward Corey Brewer. "Anytime I step on the court I think we are going to win."


Still one of the youngest teams in the country, the Gators will start one senior--sweet-shooting guard Lee Humphrey--and four juniors. If they look a lot like the team that suited up against UCLA in the national final last year, that is because they are.


And unlike Gator players from the past--see Donnell Harvey, Mike Miller, Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh, etc.--these Gators were tempted by NBA riches and chose to come back and earn more jewelry, rings to be exact.


"We all want the ring," Brewer said. "It means a lot to get the [first] ring, but right now it's a new year and a new season and we're trying to get a new one."


Noah, Brewer, Green and center Al Horford could have all been top draft picks after their sophomore year but a combination of friendships, not being ready and desire brought them back to Gainesville.


"I love playing with these guys," the 6'11" preseason first-team All American Noah said. "It wasn't until really late in the season that I was even projected to be an NBA prospect. To me, it wasn't even a question until really late in the season, and in the NCAA tournament, you aren't thinking about the NBA. Your whole focus is on those games.


"After we won, it was just such a great feeling. Of course, there is a lot of money involved but I've never been in a situation where I needed to fill up the fridge for my family. I'm happy here and money doesn't buy happiness. My mother always told me that. I'm just happy to defend a national championship, not many people can say that and I'm proud of it."


Coach Billy Donovan has done an excellent job instilling humility within his players and with giant targets on all their backs they will need it.


"I think when people talk about the expectations of, down the road, where this team should be, I think that is when we start to lose focus," Donovan said. "That is something when you are dealing with young players, being able to handle what is in front of them now and all that is going to come at them and I think we all try to do the best we can to protect them and have them understand that there needs to be a level of humility.


"I do not want them to play in fear and I do not want them to think that there is a big target on their backs, because there is not."


While teams all over the country take their best shots at the nation's No. 1 team, the Gators will be going about business as usual. And, in their minds, they are still underdogs. They are the same team that started last year unranked and they are hungry to prove everyone wrong again. Only this time, it won't be proving their worth. It will be proving their mental toughness.


Donovan believes that with this group of players, with leaders like Green and Humphrey and Noah, the Gators will have no problem slicing through the hype.


A few weeks back, Nike approached the Gators about wearing special uniforms during next year's NCAA tournament. Noah put all of Donovan's qualms about this year's team to bed.


Why are you even talking about that right now, Noah said to the Nike representative, we haven't even been selected into the NCAA tournament yet.


Not yet, but come March, with leadership well beyond their years, they will be. These Gators are not happy with just the one ring; they'd like one for each hand.



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