No shortcuts in Florida's trip to Final Four
ST. LOUIS -- There are two paths to every Final Four.
After free-throwing Oregon to death Sunday, 85-77, the Florida Gators have made it both ways in consecutive seasons.
Last year, the Gators ran the backdoor play to Indianapolis. They caught fire at season's end and simply never stopped winning, rolling through the bracket as a No. 3 seed that came into the NCAA Tournament as a peripheral national title contender.
This year, the Gators went the harder way -- through the front door with everyone watching, with every opponent primed, with every ounce of pressure on their shoulders.
"It was a lot harder this year," wingman Corey Brewer said. "Night in, night out, we get everybody's best shot. This has been really tough. ... It feels so good to get back to the Final Four."
They were awarded the overall No. 1 seed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee on March 11, but in reality they've been the overall No. 1 seed for 353 unrelenting days.
Ever since April 7, 2006, when Joakim Noah proclaimed, "We back, baby," and the Florida Oh-Fours announced en masse that they'd return to school for their junior years, they have been the prohibitive favorite for the 2007 national title.
The Gators have lived on a pedestal. No place to run, no place to hide, the rest of college basketball whacking you on the shins and waiting for you to fall. Only place to go is down.
"There is no easy road," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, now just two victories from becoming the seventh coach to win back-to-back national titles. "And I'd hate to say last year was easier. They're both really, really hard. ... Because of our margin of victory last year in the tournament outside of the Georgetown game, everybody's expectation or perception is, geez, Florida is just going to roll.
"We've had to climb this mountain. We've had to go through this journey a different way."
Give credit to Donovan for getting this team through the journey a different way. And give him credit for doing an even better coaching job this time around.
Yeah, every coach in America would trade rosters with Donovan in a heartbeat. But not every coach in America could deal with the stress, could reduce the burden of a repeat bid to manageable size and could keep his players committed to an utterly unselfish ethos.
There's a reason no team has repeated as champs in 15 years and only one school has done it in 34. It's hard.
It's hard just getting back to the Final Four. Florida is the first titlist to make a return trip in six years, since Michigan State in 2001.
"Not a lot of teams get the chance to do this again," center Al Horford said. "We appreciate it a lot more [than last year]."
So you can find all the flaws you want in this Gators team the past four games. You can criticize the slow starts, note the soft finishes, point out the fact that they've had a massive height advantage in every round and still only once won by more than eight points -- they don't care.
They're just happy to still be playing. With emphasis on the word happy.
"There was so much publicity that people can start to critique every little thing you do," Donovan said. "And the thing I did not want to happen to these kids, I did not want the fun to be taken out of it. ... There's been times when I've seen really, really good teams win and the kids are in a locker room upset because people are saying you only won by five or you didn't do this or that. It's like, geez, unless I'm perfect and play perfect, it's not fun.
"I really have worked very, very hard on my end to make sure that they enjoy and have fun with the competition part of it. I think these guys had a great time. I see them having as much fun and enjoyment this year as last year.
"You know what? That may be the hardest thing to do."
What the Gators have done is stretch their postseason winning streak to 16. Last team to win that many in a row: UNLV 1990-91. Last team to win more: UCLA 1967-73, which won 28 straight.
The Gators have danced on five podiums in the past year: twice as SEC tournament champions, twice as regional champions and once as national champions. The orange-and-blue victory tour has stretched from Nashville to Jacksonville to Minneapolis to Indianapolis to Atlanta to New Orleans to St. Louis, and now a return engagement is set for the ATL.
Of all the impressive things this group has done during this 16-game victory tour, this is my favorite: Nobody has taken more than 16 shots in a game, not even once.
That means nobody has gone off the reservation, nobody has hunted shots, nobody has craved a career night with the spotlight on to the detriment of his teammates. These guys have invested so heavily in the team concept that it might as well be a 401(k).
No individual agendas have surfaced, no NBA auditions have transpired.
"One of the things that happens when you win a championship is people want to credit different people for being the sole reason," Donovan said. "The sole reason for us winning a championship last year, perceptionwise, was Joakim Noah. He was the reason, he was the preseason Player of the Year candidate and the preseason SEC Player. ...
"I told them I thought the greatest gift they could give each other this year was the gift of unselfishness, that nobody's role was more important than the next. ... I can honestly tell you I never had a problem with them all year where somebody was worried about the next level or somebody was worried about their role or somebody wasn't getting enough shots. They really try to play the right way."
Florida has played the right way while taking the hard way back to the Final Four. Hard work remains in order to repeat, but just making a return trip was worth celebrating Sunday.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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