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.
"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.
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