As Florida makes its way back to the Final Four, having dismissed of a pesky but ultimately overmatched Oregon team in the Midwest Regional final, 85-77, yesterday, you get the feeling this Gator group has an answer for everything.
Teams that defend the perimeter, a la Butler in the Sweet 16, must make do with Al Horford and Joakim Noah. Those who choose to front the big men, as the Ducks opted, are left to watch Humphrey and Taurean Green stroke it from outside, Humphrey swishing with such authority that he sliced the net in the first half, forcing NCAA officials into a blue-vested scramble as they tried to find an Edward Jones Dome union employee to repair the net.
It is a menacing combination of talent and selflessness, one that first showed itself last year, when defying the trend and denying the cash, the team full of talented sophomores announced at their national-championship celebration that they would put the NBA on hold, return to college and aim to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Duke in 1992.
Saying it is one thing. Doing it is another. Not since Michigan State brought its 2000 hardware to Minneapolis for the 2001 Final Four had a defending champion gone back to the national semifinals.
The Florida team that no one saw coming last year arrived in every gym this season with horns blaring and crowds thumping. The goofy kids of last year became the hated favorites.
"We know basically every game we play now is going to be an away game because nobody will be rooting for us," said Green, named the regional's Most Outstanding Player. "We just use that."
That they head to Atlanta for a national semifinal date with UCLA on Saturday night, is no small testament to this team's mental fortitude. Absorbing the pressure and expectation, they also managed to remain a team of superstars that somehow never play like individuals. The scoring averages for the five starters are separated by all of 3.2 points - Green (13.3), Horford (13.2), Brewer (13.1), Noah (12.2) and Humphrey (10.1) - and their field goals attempted is eerily similar. Brewer is tops at 337, Green is second with 332, Horford and Humphrey are knotted at 288 and Noah is a close fifth a 276.
"I think anytime something great and special happens in your life it's only human to become a little complacent, a little unmotivated, to maybe feel a little full of yourself, to think you've arrived and have figured it out," coach Billy Donovan said. "They're not machines that are just going to be on focus, on edge and play the best of their ability all the time. But the greatest thing about them is I know they care."
That the Kumbaya-fest includes a bunch of supremely talented basketball players helps. Florida didn't play its best or most inspired game against Oregon. The Ducks, a team that counts 5-6 Tajuan Porter and 6-foot Aaron Brooks among its starting five, outscored the Gators, 34-24, in the paint.
But the thing about talent is, it's there when you need it. With Oregon pouring much of its undersized concentration on Noah and Horford, Florida just switched gears. Humphrey, who had just six points against Butler, poured in 23, including his first two-pointer of the NCAA Tournament and the trey that led to the 10-minute repair break, and Green swished four treys for 21 points.
"We tried to do a good job of taking away their easy looks down low just by scrambling and staying in front of the bigs," Oregon forward Bryce Taylor said. "So we caught ourselves helping down a couple of times and we got burnt by Humphrey and Taurean."
The unheralded Ducks, a team cursed by West Coast-timed games and ugly uniforms, certainly had their chances. Down 61-57, Porter missed a three, Malik Hairston missed a rebound and Brooks failed to connect on a drive to the bucket all on one possession.
On Florida's next trip, Humphrey swished a three, following it up with another one 41 seconds later, after Brooks turned it over.
That three-pointer with 8:16 to play, however, would be Florida's last field goal. The Gators instead began a march to the free-throw line, missing nine from the charity stripe down the stretch.
"Everybody was talking about our free-throw shooting," Donovan said, "and free-throw shooting kept them in the game."
Porter, who ripped a regional record eight three-pointers against UNLV on Friday but missed his first eight triples against Florida, sunk one from long distance with 40 seconds to play, making it 78-72.
Green stepped on the line as Florida inbounded the ball and Noah fouled Brooks. The senior, who led all scorers with 27, sunk both. Forced to foul, Oregon grabbed Green. He made one for a 79-74 lead with 31 seconds left.
Looking for a miracle, Brooks drove the lane but this time Brewer stepped in and swatted the shot away and basketball's version of Vidal Sassoon started snipping at another net. The piece of twine from yesterday becomes the fifth net snipped by the Gators in the last calendar year, joining the rope gathered from two SEC Tournament titles, last year's Midwest Regional final and of course, last year's national championship game souvenir.
"It was a lot harder this year," Brewer said. "Night in and night out, we got everybody's best shot, so we've had to adjust. But it's been really rewarding because we got the same five guys back from last year and we just love playing with each other. It feels so good to get back to the Final Four." *