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Florida rings in new season at Midnight Madness

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Their national championship rings are
stashed away, some in safes, others in drawers, a few back home
with family members. Their commemorative hats and T-shirts are long
gone, too.

The Florida Gators are ready to move on.

A new season. A new team. A new task.

The Gators returned to the court Friday night for Midnight
Madness, tipping off practice for the 2006-07 season, celebrating
their first national title again and beginning their pursuit to
become the first team to repeat in 15 years.

Perhaps as a message to his team, Gators coach Billy Donovan dropped what everyone thought was the championship trophy. It turned out to be a replica, and he apparently did it as a Friday the 13th stunt. Or did he?

"We all want our rings and it means a lot to get them, but
right now it's a new year and a new season and we're trying to get
new ones," forward Corey Brewer said.

Although Midnight Madness marked the official beginning of
practice, the Gators got a head start last month with 10 days of
work before playing two exhibition games in Canada -- part of an
international tour that every school is allowed to schedule once
every four years.

Nonetheless, the Gators treated Friday like their first day.

Donovan held a nearly two-hour practice before
Midnight Madness, which included a highlight video of last season,
the unveiling of a championship banner, a slam dunk contest and a
scrimmage.

Not surprisingly, Joakim Noah was the center of attention.

Arguably the most recognizable college athlete in the nation,
Noah was cheered every time he touched the ball. He even won the
3-point shooting contest, making five from beyond the arc while
teamed with guard Sha Brooks of the women's team.

His first one was an air ball, then he hit two in a row. When
his next shot rimmed out, he turned to the student section in the
O'Connell Center and said, "If I would have made that, I would
have been talking mad trash."

Several schools started practice with festivities aimed at
including students and fans before practice gets serious.

• Kentucky drew a 23,312 fans to Rupp Arena for "Big Blue
Madness." The crowd broke the national record for spectators at a
practice, according to basketball spokesman Scott Stricklin.

• Kansas had 16,000 people attend its annual "Late Night in the
Phog" at Allen Fieldhouse. This year's theme saw the players
compete in their own version of "Dancing with the Stars." The
crowd erupted in laughter as each player teamed with a member of
Kansas' dance team for a short dance.

• George Mason, coming off its surprise appearance in the Final
Four, had about 6,000 fans -- about double the turout in past years
-- at Mason Madness.

• For the first time Connecticut had both its men's and women's
programs -- which have combined for seven national championships
since 1995 -- involved in Midnight Madness at Gampel Pavilion.

The Gators spent the last six months celebrating their title.
They partied through the night after beating UCLA 73-57 in
Indianapolis on April 3, received a raucous reception the following
day at the Gainesville airport and relived the season's best
moments in a championship salute in the O'Connell Center later that
week.

It got better, too:

• Brewer, Noah and Al Horford -- roommates who had been projected
as first-round NBA draft picks during the summer -- decided to
return for another season.

• Florida unveiled a new court, the same one on which they won
it all. Officials purchased the floor from the NCAA for $70,000 and
will play on it this season.

• The Gators visited the White House and were treated like
celebrities in class and around campus, signing autographs and
posing for pictures.

• They received the loudest ovation at Florida's spring football
game -- yes, even bigger than the one for freshman quarterback Tim
Tebow. They got an even more impressive welcome when they walked
onto Florida Field to get their championship rings last month.

Players immediately took the rings out of their cases, put them
on and wore them the rest of the day.

Most of them haven't touched the rings since.

They feel the same about all the other championship memorabilia.

Maybe they're being humble. Maybe they're truly focused on the
future and not concerned about the past. Maybe they're just
following Donovan's lead.

"I don't wear mine," Donovan said. "It's something I'm going
to have for the rest of my life to reflect back on. But that's in
the past. It's been written about. It's been talked about. It's
been well documented and I'm very proud.

"It's the pinnacle of a program when you get to the point. But
for me, my focus needs to be on this season and what's going on
right now."

Donovan's task over the next month -- Florida opens the season
Nov. 10 against Samford -- is to meld four talented freshmen in with
seven returning scholarship players.

How well Jonathan Mitchell, Brandon Powell, Marreese Speights
and Dan Werner fit in could be key in determining whether Florida
becomes the first team to repeat since Duke in 1992.

"If our guys' minds are flying around at 30,000 feet, thinking
that they're the best thing since sliced bread and walking around
with that kind of arrogance, I guarantee our team will be humbled
very, very quickly," Donovan said. "But at the same time, I don't
want them to lack confidence. I don't want them to play in fear. I
don't want them to think there's a big target on our back because
there's not.

"I think all the things that come with winning a championship
are all negative things that you put in your mind and put you on
the defense. I really don't want our team to be that way."

The Gators seem to be responding the way Donovan had hoped,
especially with their rings nowhere in sight.

"We look at this season and we think we have to do better than
we did last year," forward Chris Richard said. "I know that's
saying a lot because we won a national championship. We have to
focus on next year instead of focusing on the past."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.