U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2007 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Gators prove to be a cut above
Ken Davis, msnbc.com

ATLANTA One by one, the Florida Gators climbed the ladders in the Georgia Dome for a chance to cut down their own personal piece of history.

Joakim Noah, who began his celebration with a mad dash into the stands to hug his loved ones, held his strand of net high and flashed his photogenic smile to the congregation of Florida fans. The pony-tailed one was in his stocking feet by that time. He had already hurled his sneakers into the crowd, creating the type of souvenir frenzy normally associated with a Barry Bonds home run. Next time you see those shoes, they'll be bringing top dollar on eBay.

The Gators beat Ohio State 84-75 Monday night for their second consecutive national championship. When it was over, they danced. They tugged on their jerseys. They did the chomp. They ignored the orders of the public address announcer, who practically had to put the players under house arrest to get them on the championship stage for their trophy presentation.

And more than once, the Florida fans pleaded with their heroes: "One more year, one more year."

It wasn't clear whom that chant was directed toward. Was it Noah? Was it Al Horford or Corey Brewer? Was it coach Billy Donovan? Or was it the entire team?

After all, seniors Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard are the only ones who have to leave. The rest of the Gators technically could be back next year. They could decide they love each other so much that they want to take a stab at a three-peat.

"I couldn't even tell you right now," Brewer said when asked about that possibility. "Nothing else has crossed my mind except enjoying this and enjoying it with my teammates."

The Gators don't have to return. They've proved enough. With titles in two different seasons, under drastically different circumstances, Florida's accomplishment clearly ranks among the top feats ever in college basketball.

The facts are in the NCAA record book. Florida is the first team since Duke (1991, 1992) to win consecutive titles in men's college basketball. The Gators haven't won seven straight or 10 overall like UCLA. But Florida becomes just the seventh school to win consecutive championships, joining Oklahoma State, Kentucky, San Francisco, Cincinnati, UCLA and Duke.

Nothing will ever surpass the run of John Wooden's teams at UCLA. But the Gators deserve praise that at least matches the glory bestowed upon Duke 15 years ago. They are the only programs to repeat since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Making them the only teams that had to win six games in order to hoist the trophy. After weeks of trying to dodge questions about the past and the future, the Gators finally seemed comfortable with their place in history Monday night.

"I sit up here very, very humbled because I think I was fortunate enough over the last two years to coach a group of guys that has to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time," Donovan said. "I'm not saying that they were the most talented. I'm not saying they were flawless.

"But when you talk about the word 'team,' what that encompasses in terms of unselfishness, sacrifice, and playing together, they have got to go down and be considered, in my opinion, one of the best teams to ever play."

Despite his recent attempts to elude the issue, Donovan obviously had given this some thought.

"The UNLV teams, the UCLA teams, the Kentucky teams, the Duke teams," he said. "I'm not sitting up here saying that these guys could beat them. ... I'm not talking about competing against other teams, but what a team is. I think they've got to be talked about."

The argument could be made that UNLV was better in 1990 and 1991. The Runnin' Rebels won it all in 1990 and were undefeated heading into the 1991 national semifinals. But they lost to Duke and the Blue Devils went on to find their place in history by going all the way in 1991 and 1992.

Kentucky's run from 1996 to 1998 was truly impressive. Rick Pitino coached the Wildcats to the title in 1996, and lost to Arizona in the 1997 championship game. Then Tubby Smith led Pitino's guys to another title in 1998. That's great stuff.

But think about the special demands on this Florida team. They came out of nowhere last season and dominated UCLA in the championship game. And now they have survived a season of expectations and pressure, topping the entire effort with another dominating triumph over big Greg Oden and a talented Ohio State team.

"We did it both ways," Brewer said. "We're a team. We always stick together. It's what we came back to do. We won back-to-back."

"The ultimate team," Taurean Green said.

Green can say that with confidence because the Gators can claim the only starting five ever to repeat as national champs.

Lost in all the talk of repeating is a closer examination of what it takes to reach that point. Coaches talk about how hard it is to win six consecutive games in this tournament.

Consider this: Florida now owns an 18-game win streak in postseason play. The Gators are 22-1 in postseason play the last three years. The last time Florida lost in the postseason was in the second round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament, when Villanova stopped the Gators 76-65.

"I would put them in the category of probably one of the best teams to win," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. At the very least, Florida already is the team of the decade. The Gators are the first team to win multiple championships this decade. In fact, no other program has reached the national title game more than once this decade and the Gators have been there three times, including 2000.

Since UCLA won those seven consecutive national championships from 1967-73, only four other teams have won the title and returned to the championship game the following year. There's Duke of course. Georgetown lost to Villanova in 1985. Arkansas lost to UCLA in 1995 and Kentucky lost to Arizona in 1997.

But don't mention Kentucky too loudly around Gainesville today. The thought of Donovan packing his bags and moving to Lexington to coach the Wildcats is the one thing that could rain on the Gators' parade.

"I just got off the court," Donovan said when asked about his future. "I mean, [my future is] right here at the University of Florida. I'm going to enjoy this moment right now. I think all that stuff will be addressed.

"But now's not the time to address it, as it wasn't when it got asked over the last week. It's all about these kids, our program and what happened." Donovan paused.

"It was a good try though," he told the reporter who asked.

Donovan proved his value again Monday night. The Gators didn't mind giving Oden 25 points and 12 rebounds as long as they contained the Ohio State perimeter game. The Buckeyes were 4-for-23 from 3-point range, they were outscored 22-11 from the free throw line and Florida won the battle on the boards 38-28. About the only blemish on Florida's side of the box score were those 15 turnovers that Ohio State converted into 14 points.

Every time Ohio State cut the lead, Florida had a response. Donovan utilized his big men to perfection, making sure he had plenty of fouls to give. He even got two points and two rebounds in six minutes from freshman Marreese Speights, a new face to this Florida dynasty.

Oden had better numbers than Horford (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Noah (8 and 3) but Donovan also got eight points and eight rebounds from Richard before he fouled out.

That's what Donovan meant when he talked about "team." The Gators even sat down together on the championship podium and watched the "One Shining Moment" video on the Georgia Dome video board.

They looked like a bunch of teenagers watching TV at a slumber party.

"It almost makes you cry," said Brewer, who was named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.

Any tears will be tears of joy. The Gators worked hard to get to this point. They deserve credit for what they've done. There are big decisions to be made, but these guys are always living in the moment. Those issues will be dealt with in the coming weeks.

Right now it's time to celebrate. The Gators have earned it.

"People can say whatever they want," Noah said. "But at the end of the day, the Gator boys have two championships in a row."

First place: John Feinstein, Washington Post
Second place: Dick Jerardi, Philadelphia Daily News
Third place: Ken Davis, msnbc.com