- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Florida’s coronation as the kings of college hoops erased any doubt whether the program was worth mentioning among the nation’s elite.

With the possibility of nearly the entire roster coming back for an encore, the Gators intend to maintain that position next season.

Florida flogged UCLA 73-57 in Monday’s NCAA tournament championship game at the RCA Dome, confusing and frustrating the Bruins with a relentless defense and a just-go-ahead-and-try-to-stop-us commitment to pounding the ball into the paint on offense.

The Gators’ first national title came in the program’s third Final Four appearance in the last dozen years. Florida also overcame the specter of five straight departures in the first weekend of the tournament to finally earn a championship banner.

“We always knew we had the talent. We always knew we could do it,” forward Adrian Moss said. “It was just the belief. We believed.”

The Gators could retain their formula for success if the team remains mostly intact. Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Final Four most outstanding player Joakim Noah all could entertain thoughts of declaring for the NBA Draft in the coming weeks after impressive postseasons.

Noah’s potential draft value skyrocketed in a tournament during which the sophomore displayed uncanny defensive abilities and increasing polish around the basket offensively. He blocked a title game-record six shots and clearly rattled the Bruins not long into the game.

Brewer, a 6-foot-8 sophomore known before this year for his defense, remained glued to Arron Afflalo (UCLA’s leading scorer) throughout Monday’s game. But he also bolstered his offensive ability this season, developing both his moves to the basket and his outside shot to become a complete threat.

Then there’s Horford, a sophomore whose rugged play inside provided the Gators (33-6) with the requisite toughness for a championship march. Horford said he would not rush his decision and would consult both his teammates and his family before making an announcement.

Yet like Noah, Horford sounded eager for a shot at being part of the first team to win back-to-back titles since Duke in 1991 and 1992.

“We know what we have,” Horford said. “If we can all come back and put it together, we can be a tough team.”

No one other than the Gators would have guessed Florida would be so tough this year. The Gators lost David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh from last year, and Brewer was the leading returning scorer with 7.5 points a game.

“Even our local media always talked about [how] the Big Three’s gone,” Brewer said. “They never talked about what we had coming back.”

It turned out to be more than enough. Sophomore point guard Taurean Green took over for Roberson and sparked the Gators to a 17-0 start before Florida endured a 5-6 skid. The Gators were perfect once March arrived, winning their last two regular-season games, the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament in succession.

Along the way, all five starters averaged double figures, establishing a balance few other teams could replicate. After a three-game losing streak in February, Florida re-affirmed its commitment to defense, allowing no more than 62 points in any of its NCAA tournament victories.

Moss, the program’s lone senior, endured three of the Gators’ premature postseason exits. However, the Houston native helped shepherd his precocious teammates through a season-long maturation process that brought them to Monday’s title game.

He then scored nine points in the first half against UCLA to secure his spot in Gator lore as part of the team that helped change the way Florida’s program is viewed. The victory gave coach Billy Donovan his first national title in 10 seasons in Gainesville and silenced critics who perpetually pointed to the Gators’ annual March flameouts rather than the school’s eight straight 20-win seasons.

“If anybody in the country wants to say something, look at this finger right here,” Moss said while pointing to his ring finger. “There’s going to be a fat rock on that thing, and I’m not getting married. I don’t care how they perceive us. They can say, ‘Fluke, lucky, it was a bad Final Four, they had a good draw.’ They can say whatever. I call myself a winner.”

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