It was bigger than any Joakim Noah chest thumping, Al Horford arm flex, or rumor about where Billy Donovan might cash his next paycheck. It was bigger than a rematch of a December battle in Gainesville, or the revenge factor from the BCS Championship in January.
The Florida Gators did more than claim a second straight basketball title on Monday night. They made history, and firmly placed their stamp on two of the greatest seasons in college basketball history.
But it’s about more than what they’ve accomplished. It’s how they accomplished it. This Gator squad embodies the team concept maybe more than any past champion, and that’s something special.
By now, everyone knows the story. Noah, Horford and Corey Brewer passed up NBA riches last summer to come back and try to make another run at a title. With a bulls-eye squarely on their chests all season, all the Gator boys did was go 35-5, claim the SEC regular season and tournament titles, and cut down the Final Four nets for the second straight year. Along the way, they taught basketball fans a few lessons about unselfish play, teamwork, and passion.
You want teamwork? Name Florida’s best player this year. Is it Horford, who looks as though you can pencil him in as a double-double machine in the NBA? Is it Brewer, the 2007 Final Four MOP, and arguably the most versatile player in the country? How about Noah, whose energy and enthusiasm would make him a fan favorite on any team in the country? What about Lee Humphrey, the deadeye shooter who now holds the Final Four record for three-pointers? Or is the often overlooked Taurean Green, who runs the Gator offense to perfection? If you’re struggling for an answer, you can join the list of Gator victims this year, who were simply overwhelmed by a team with no apparent weaknesses.
How about passion? Look at Noah, the team’s emotional leader and the reigning Final Four MOP. Despite foul trouble that relegated him to the bench more than he would have liked, he still was the games biggest cheerleader, waving his towel and cheering on his teammates from the sideline. Even though his numbers were down from a year ago, when he became the tournament darling, the smile on his face as the clock wound down showed how little he cared about his individual stats. When he entered the stands after the game to hug his mom, there was no doubt how much this win meant to him.
The Gators’ run the last two seasons may never be matched, simply because of the landscape of college basketball. How often will three potential lottery picks sacrifice the money and fame of the NBA for another year of college? How often will five players, each of whom could likely be the featured option on many teams, willingly work together and sacrifice their own stats for the good of the team? How often do you see a team as close-knit as Florida, where egos are checked at the door and players genuinely enjoy playing with one another?
There’s no telling when, or if, college basketball will see a team like these Gators. With Humphrey and super-sub Chris Richard graduating, and Horford, Noah and Brewer likely off to the NBA, the chances of a three-peat are slim to none. Even if the rumors of Donovan heading to UK prove false, there’s no question these Gators will look different next year.
But for now, they’re on top of the world, and rightly so. They are everything that is right about college sports, and they’re a team that any true basketball fan can appreciate. By coming back to school, they showed that, sometimes, being a kid and enjoying yourself is more important than your paycheck. They understood they had a chance to go down in history together, as a team, and that you can’t put a price tag on that. But most of all, they understood that the team is more important than any one individual, and that’s a lesson that needs to live on.
So my hat’s off to these Florida Gators- a true champion in every sense of the word.