Phil Sheridan | Gators simply a team of champions

Posted: April 03, 2007

ATLANTA - Billy Donovan hasn't gotten much wrong during these two championship seasons. He won't mind being wrong about this.

Donovan likes to say the NCAA tournament determines a champion, not necessarily the best team in college basketball. With what they did last night, Donovan's Florida Gators proved they're the best team, a great team, a team for the ages.

The Gators had to beat a terrific Ohio State team to become the first repeat champs since Duke in 1991-92. They did it with authority, 84-75.

And so Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, the trio who passed up NBA millions for this chance to repeat, etch their names among the greatest college basketball players of all time.

"We have to be thought of as one of the greatest teams of all time," said Brewer, the sneaky-best player on this team. "The numbers don't lie. Back-to-back."

And Donovan, who could be moving on to where the grass is bluer, punched his ticket in the basketball Hall of Fame. Whether he stays at Florida or leaves for Kentucky, no one can take two national championships by age 41 away from him.

"I sit up here very, very humbled," Donovan said. "I'm just so proud and feel so blessed to be sitting here coaching them. It could be anybody sitting in this chair."

Center Greg Oden, likely playing in his final game for Ohio State, rose to the occasion with 25 points and dominating defensive play. He showed exactly why he'll be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft of his choice. But even a great player at the top of his game wasn't enough to keep the Gators from their destiny.

Theoretically, these Gators could come back for thirds. The three juniors could choose to stay for one more season. But it's hard to imagine them all sacrificing a second year of professional earnings.

It is more than coincidence, of course, that these two schools met in January's football national championship game.

There is an unsettling trend here, as traditional football powers funnel some of that BCS cash flow into their basketball programs.

The rich are not only getting richer in college football, they're buying themselves shiny new basketball coaches.

At the same time, the Gators' achievement - champions in football and, twice, in basketball within 12 months - is awfully impressive.

Winning even one national championship in football or basketball gives your students and alumni something to boast about for decades. Winning one per semester is truly remarkable.

It was not surprising that Florida's players here were happier to talk about their school's 41-14 blowout of the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes in that BCS game. The Ohio State players barely admitted they'd heard of the football team and swore there was no connection.

But there was a common thread running through Florida's previous title games. In both, Florida shocked its opponents with sheer intensity and speed.

The basketball team blew out UCLA in last year's final, then repeated the feat in Saturday's semifinal.

It's possible the football Buckeyes still don't know what hit them in Glendale, Ariz. Urban Meyer's Gators had them buried by the end of the first quarter.

That's not what happened here.

Ohio State was ready for the tempo of this game, maybe because these teams played each other back in December. Coach Thad Matta talked Sunday about how that game turned into a rout.

"It was 40-40 with 17 minutes left," Matta said, "and then they blitzed us. They took the game to another level. We weren't mentally ready to get in a fight with them."

Although everyone on both sides said the December game had no bearing, there was a little déjà vu.

The halftime score of the first meeting was Florida 38, Ohio State 29. The halftime score last night was Florida 40, Ohio State 29.

That tells you being ready for Florida's blitz doesn't necessarily mean you can stop it.

Case in point: After Ivan Harris hit a three-pointer to cut Florida's first-half lead to 24-22, the Gators responded with three treys from three players. Quicker than Mike Conley Jr. can slash to the hoop, Florida was up 11.

When the Buckeyes got to within six points with about five minutes left, Taurean Green hit a three-pointer, Chris Richard scored low over Oden, and Horford hit a soft jumper to make the lead 11 again.

"We just couldn't turn the corner on them," Matta said after the game.

The Gators aren't just good, they're relentless. With Oden making it tough for Horford and Noah inside, they simply fired the ball out to Corey Brewer or Lee Humphrey for jump shots.

"Now you know why they're so good," Matta said. "I wish I had an answer for that other than: Boy, I hope they miss."

In big games, they don't miss. That's the definition of clutch. That, Billy Donovan would have to agree, is the definition of greatness.


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