Each college basketball season stamps its own footprint on the history books. The players and teams who will fleetingly glance through the NCAA landscape mysteriously mold into some amalgamation of color, pageantry, and individual expression.
Last season’s unforgettable images are of the two white kids on opposite coasts – Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick – who seemingly didn’t miss until the NCAA Tournament, Villanova’s endless army of ruthless guards, and a single word we’ll never, ever forget: Pittsnogle.
But this season doesn’t just feel different. It really is different. That’s because Florida, all five starters worth, is back intact and elite freshmen around the country aren’t earning NBA salaries. They’re in class.
No team has won back-to-back titles since Duke doubled up in 1991 and 1992 and there’s a glaringly obvious reason why. A huge, bright neon sign reason why. The stars of national title teams almost always leave school. Those who don’t graduate just wave goodbye as they hit the highway of professional basketball riches, leaving behind exhaust fumes, memories, and one giant trophy.
Before Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, and Al Horford go speeding off, they want to add another trophy to the trophy case. All three mega-stars passed up serious cash to take a Gator bite out of college basketball history. In fact, Florida is the first national champion to return its core unit since Arizona won it all in 1997.
And that’s not all Florida has going for it.. Looking for team chemistry? The three future lottery picks mentioned above and super point Taurean Green are roommates. Plus, this year’s team should be much, much better than they were last season. Their memorably dominating play in the tournament is the reason you probably forgot the boys in orange and blue were merely a three seed. They were underdogs. They were college basketball infants (four sophomores and junior Lee Humphrey) who grew into men over their last six games. How much better can they be this time around?
The national class of freshmen is almost the antithesis of Florida’s team: Hype drenched in inexperience. This group comes complete with web site fame, magazine accolades, and games on national television, yet they still have yet to play – never mind win – a game at the collegiate level. But that doesn’t mean they won’t astonish.
For the first time since Spencer Haywood sued the NBA to allow college underclassmen and high school seniors the right to enter the draft, the fairest of them all in the prep ranks will actually play college ball. And the age minimum that caused this revolution couldn’t have come at a better time. This particular class is spectacular.
Greg Oden was the most highly publicized high school center of all-time. Lew Alcindor probably would’ve held that title, but his prep tenure ended long before the advent of cable television and the internet and, as such, the legendary match-up between Power Memorial and DeMatha obviously wasn’t on ESPN. Same goes for Wilt Chamberlain at Overbrook High School in Philly. And people in the know knew Shaquille O’Neal would be great, yet at the time there just weren’t that many people in the know.
In 1995, Kevin Garnett’s surprisingly successful jump from high school to the pros pointed a symbolic waterway for other phenoms to follow. After Kobe Bryant’s own jump and his celebrated career subsequently followed suit, the last ten years featured a flood of followers. This culmination led to LeBron James surfing over the tidal wave of high school fame at its absolute apex, resulting in his first overall pick status, the infamous Hummer scandal, and a sneaker deal worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. Ohio State’s Oden was floating towards the same glorious ocean of opportunity before fate – and David Stern – intervened.
But that’s not even the scary part. Turns out, Oden’s not alone. The collegiate landscape is infested with first-year superstars.
Kevin Durant is this generation’s version of Kevin Garnett. His tremendous skill is matched only by his length and athleticism. Durant might just be the premiere college basketball player in America and he could do for Texas what Carmelo Anthony did for Syracuse.
Two of the three freshmen starting at Georgia Tech this season – Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young – won’t be Yellow Jackets very long. Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson attended the same Pennsylvania high school, but Ellington should star at UNC this season and Henderson will do the same as a Blue Devil. University of Washington stud Spencer Hawes is another gem whose one big decision last summer was picking out a class schedule, not a suit for the draft green room.
And, of course, there’s always a handful of youngsters who come out of nowhere to shock the world. Just ask the kids at Florida.