Already special, Gators are on the brink of history
Florida has a chance to become the first repeat champion since Duke in the early '90s, but given the times, the Gators' feat would be more impressive, writes Gene Wojciechowski.
ATLANTA -- "A little more than an hour ago," said the reporter to Florida's Joakim Noah during Sunday's news conference at the Georgia Dome, "Ron Lewis was up there and described you guys as a 'good' team. A follow-up question was asked, [he] described Ohio State as great and referred to you again with the word 'good.' How do you feel about that assessment?"
Oh boy. Noah reacted as if someone had ordered him to report to a barbershop and ask for the Billy Donovan/Eddie Munster special.
"Oh my God!" the Gators forward said. "He said that? No! [Long pause] What a bad person."
"Anything else?" the NCAA moderator asked.
"I don't even know what else to say," a clearly astounded Noah said. "I really don't know."
"At least he said we were good," said Florida teammate Corey Brewer, trying to be helpful. "He could have said we were bad. Next question, please."
Except that Lewis didn't actually say the Buckeyes were great, although he did agree with the description. And while several of his teammates showered the Gators with compliments, Lewis stopped short of genuflecting.
"They're a good team to me," he said. "That's all I can say about it."
Lewis later qualified his grading system, saying "good" was at the top of his personal scale, unless you were talking about Michael Jordan's 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who were great. Whatever.
Anyway, you have to give Lewis credit for having the stones to express polite, public indifference about Florida mania or, as Noah described the phenomenon, "Every single time the Gator Boys come to play, it's the circus." Even more impressive about Lewis' comments is that he was at Florida's O'Connell Center this past December when the Gators all but sent the Buckeyes back to Columbus in a brown paper bag. Florida won by 26, and Lewis couldn't hit the side of the O-Dome (3-for-10).
Meanwhile, Noah had it right about the circus. He said the Gators can't leave their downtown Atlanta hotel because of the constant attention. So Noah, unable to sleep much during tournament time, sits in his room and channel surfs.
A few nights ago, he came across an HBO documentary on UCLA, the same Bruins program that won seven consecutive national championships (1967-73) and 10 in 12 years. Florida is going for what seems like a much more modest two-peat.
"They were just an unbelievable team," Noah said.
But it was also a different era, and a much different tournament. Now, the field is a bloated 65 teams, and there is talk of expanding it to 68. When UCLA's John Wooden won his last national title in 1975, there were only 32 teams. And you needed to win just five games, not six, for your shining moment.
So Florida's tournament gold standard shouldn't be Wooden's legacy but instead a program regarded by some people (translation: anybody in Carolina blue or Maryland red) as college basketball's Evil Empire: Duke.
Duke is the last program to win consecutive national championship (1991-92). Duke is the last program to overpower college basketball with its sheer excellence. Duke is the last program to appear under Noah's circus tent.
Forget about the Gator Boys. When Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and the rest of the Blue Devils arrived at their NCAA-assigned hotel, it was Beatles-esque.
It was a revealing moment Sunday as Ohio State's players listed their all-time best college teams, followed later in the afternoon by Florida's players and their choices.
"I'd have to say the Duke team," Buckeyes guard Jamar Butler said.
"Same one Jamar said," OSU's Ivan Harris said.
"Duke, '91-'92," Lewis said.
But when the same question was put to Florida's five starters, not one player mentioned the Blue Devils. Instead, it was '96 Kentucky, '00 Florida, '98 North Carolina, '98 Kentucky. Donovan had a sweet spot for '90 UNLV and '96 Kentucky.
Someone obviously has provided the Buckeyes with a hoops history lesson. Not only can Ohio State win its first basketball national title since 1960 but it can prevent Florida from creating a legacy, relatively speaking, for the ages.
"You know, we don't want a team to go back-to-back, and especially not on us," Lewis said.
It's a nice thought, but Florida is the best team in the country. It's that simple. The Gators don't always play like it, but when they're totally engaged in a game -- like they were when it mattered in the semis against UCLA on Saturday night -- they're nearly impossible to beat. Add Lewis' comments to Monday evening's equation and you have a Florida team with a grudge and a rare chance at basketball immortality.
I admire those '91-92 Duke teams for all sorts of reasons -- the coaching, the '91 win in the semis against supposedly invincible UNLV, the '92 OT regional final win against Kentucky in what my colleague Pat Forde calls "the greatest game ever played," the resiliency and the way those Krzyzewski teams turned basketball into a craft. And if '06-07 Florida played '91-92 Duke, I'd take the Gators. A little too much size, too much bench.
The Gators have won 17 consecutive postseason games. Seventeen. They are here because of talent but also because of something as corny as love and respect for one another. The Dukies had a similar bond.
But nobody left Duke early 16 years ago. Now, Josh McRoberts bolts Cameron as a sophomore. Meanwhile, Noah, Brewer and Al Horford -- all of whom would have been first-round NBA draft picks last year -- returned for a final run.
"We have a chance to make history, to do something really, really special," Noah said.
He misses the point. They already have.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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