Florida erased doubts with tourney performance
MINNEAPOLIS -- A Florida Gators team that began the season as a mystery is ending it with mastery.
Before the opener in November, none of the green Gators on Billy Donovan's roster had ever led the team in scoring in a single game. After supposedly being too young for a prominent position in the college basketball big picture, they are front and center in that picture today. They're steamrolling to the Final Four as the favorite to cut down the nets April 3.
Florida earns that distinction after reducing the Minneapolis Regional to Gator bait. The sophomore-led lizards blew out South Alabama and Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the opening rounds, survived Georgetown here Friday night, then dispatched the last No. 1 seed standing in this chaotic tournament, Villanova, with relative ease, 75-62. Nobody else -- not LSU, not UCLA, not Miracle Mason -- took the last step to Indianapolis with as much authority as the Gators.
But don't expect these guys to be comfortable in their new Team To Beat skin.
"If we worried about the things you guys [the media] worried about, our heads would really explode," said Joakim Noah, the best ponytailed baller since Bill Walton (who didn't grow his hair out until he went pro). "I think we realized that we can't worry about what people are saying and we just have to stick together and play basketball the way we are capable of playing.
"So it's great when you have a lot of praise, but at the same time you have to stay levelheaded, stay humble and be hungry, be poor, be driven: PHD."
(For the record, that's Poor, Hungry and Driven.)
Noah, who has more personality than Einstein had brains, punctuated that comment with a startling James Brown grunt into the microphone: "UHHH!" That elicited a comment from the exceedingly straight-laced NCAA moderator, who deadpanned, "Thanks for that."
The moderator could have spoken for the entirety of Gator Nation, which can thank Noah heartily for delivering Florida to Indianapolis.
He is an astonishingly agile athlete for his 6-foot-11 size, with quick hands and feet. And the only thing faster than his tongue has been his growth rate as a player.
A year ago, when Villanova eliminated Florida in the second round of the NCAAs, Noah played one scoreless minute. Sunday he played 36 vital, vibrant minutes, racking up 21 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots to be named the regional's Most Outstanding Player.
"Joakim Noah was outstanding," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We had a tough time disrupting them because he gave so much balance to them and just kept them under control."
The sophomore class that forms the backbone of this Florida team scored 63 of the Gators' 75 points. Undervalued point guard Taurean Green had 19 points and four assists, and wing man Corey Brewer chipped in 11 points, including the first six Florida points of the second half.
But it was Noah and his fellow big man, Al Horford, who exposed Villanova's interior vulnerability like nobody else all year had. They combined for 33 points, 30 rebounds and seven blocked shots, handled the ball competently, and passed with aplomb. Goodness knows how many other shots were altered by their long arms and vertical leap.
"They really did a good job of using their length to change shots," said Wright, who urged his players at halftime not to be intimidated into changing the trajectory on their shots.
"That's easy to say as a coach," Wright admitted. "When you are a player, you go with your instincts. You go to put it up, you see a big guy there, you loft it higher."
The result of that interior defense and Florida's dogged pursuit of Villanova on the perimeter was a season-worst 25 percent shooting by the 28-5 Wildcats. In the end, size did matter in the shortest team's pursuit of its first national title in decades. Another uplifting Philadelphia story bites the dust short of the big payoff, like Saint Joseph's and Smarty Jones in 2004.
"We are going to suck up this hurt a little bit tonight, but I am going to make sure these guys feel real good about themselves," Wright said.
The Gators clearly feel great right now, and nobody has the right to celebrate more than Donovan, who has done his best coaching job. He might not have known what he had in October, but he liked the intangibles.
"This team, starting the season, had all the team makeup," he said. "They were unselfish. They wanted to win. They wanted to learn, wanted to work, wanted to get better. I didn't know if we had enough experience to be able to win basketball games, a number of basketball games, because they had never been through it before."
Florida started winning immediately, clicking off 17 in a row to begin the season and win the NIT Season Tip-Off. A three-game January losing streak actually helped, showing the Gators what they needed to do to win the close ones.
Since then, the sophomores' experience in starring roles gradually has caught up with their talent. There has been no stopping this team in March. The Gators are a perfect 9-0 for the month, with seven of the wins in postseason games.
Now, Donovan is taking Florida back to the RCA Dome, site of its last Final Four appearance, with complete validation of his coaching credentials.
Between Final Fours, Donovan went from the hottest young coach in the country to an occasionally criticized guy whose teams routinely underachieved in March. For five straight years, Florida lost to lower-seeded teams in the first weekend of the tournament. That overshadowed the fact that Donovan had built a program in a football school, to the point that it has made eight straight trips to the Big Dance.
Not anymore. The only guys who have been to more Final Fours this century are Roy Williams and Tom Izzo.
"I am much, much more interested in getting in every single year and giving yourself a chance to do something," Donovan said. "I think too much is made of how deep you go. I am going to tell you one thing right now: I would much, much rather have gotten knocked out in the first or second round for five or six straight years, and have an opportunity to go back and win it all.
"To me, it's not a lot of difference. When you lose, you lose. We are excited about going back there. I'm just disappointed that [the Final Four] hasn't been in Indianapolis every single year."
Last time it was there, Florida was part of a three-team supporting cast beneath heavy favorite Michigan State. This time around, the Gators go to Indy as the team to beat.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.