- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

ATLANTA — The subject comes up so often — 86,344 times already, a joking and perhaps conservative estimate forward Al Horford provided yesterday — the Florida basketball team seems unaware of its possibilities and importance.

Can the Gators repeat as national champions? They heard it shortly after dusting off UCLA in last year’s final. They heard it all summer when three stars passed on NBA riches to stick around for their junior year. They heard it throughout a regular season some might have dismissed as a mere appetizer.

And they have heard it even more since the NCAA tournament began last month.

“I wish I had a nickel for every time everybody asked that,” junior Corey Brewer said. “I’d have a lot of money.”

It won’t be long before he can provide a definitive answer — and perhaps also those riches he hasn’t received for contending with all the repeat talk. The Gators (34-5), who brought back all five starters and nearly their entire team from last year’s title run, will play for another championship tonight against Ohio State (35-3) at the Georgia Dome.

Of greater long-term significance is where Florida would rank among the all-time great teams. No one is about to anoint this group the second coming of John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s, not with a greater diffusion of talent in the sport.

But a place alongside 1991-92 Duke, the only team to win consecutive titles since 1967-73 UCLA? There’s no reason why the Gators wouldn’t fit with that company.

“One more win would matter because it’s all about perception,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “If you think of Michigan State in 2000 winning it all, people don’t remember they got back [to the Final Four] the next year.

“When we talk about great teams in the last 25 years, we talk about the Duke back-to-back run. I think Florida is playing for a place in history.”

It is a topic, though, the Gators find resounding.

Brewer, Horford and Joakim Noah all decided to come back for another season, eschewing dollars for the chance to spend another year together. Horford conceded yesterday it was an all-for-one-and-one-for-all scenario, and the departure of even one of them would have led all to declare for the NBA Draft.

Camaraderie often can be vastly overrated in explaining much of what happens in sports, but it remains the reason Florida retained its team from a year ago. It is the defining characteristic of the Gators’ core, who all parroted yesterday how little they have pondered the potential ramifications of consecutive titles.

“I probably would appreciate it a lot more if it happens,” Brewer said. “We really haven’t thought about a legacy or anything. We’re just having fun right now. It’s some of the best times of our lives.

“We have a chance to play for another national championship, and it doesn’t get any better than that.”

The path here was only occasionally harrowing. The Gators spread out their losses (one each in November and December, three in February), all while remaining a deep, well-rounded team with players who usually played to their strengths. It has meant not worrying about external expectations and pressures.

“Our guys have lived in the moment, and our guys have tried to focus on each game or each possession, and they really haven’t gone down the road that much,” Florida assistant Larry Shyatt said. “They’re young guys, so we coaches sometimes daydream in the offseason, but I think that question will be answered down the road.”

Though the Gators haven’t collected their second title yet, the possibility of three in a row is especially tantalizing. Florida starts four juniors — guard Lee Humphrey is the lone senior — but Brewer, Horford and Noah all probably would be first-round picks if they left after tonight’s game.

Their return is a dream scenario in so many ways — including the unlikelihood it would occur. Brewer cackled at the possibility before trying to put on a straight face about the situation.

“We’ll see what happens after the season,” Brewer said, answering a question he probably won’t face nearly as often as others.

Nevertheless, a second title at least would be equally as sweet as the first. The Gators were upstarts a year ago, winning it all as a No. 3 seed with four sophomores in their starting lineup.

It’s a lot different this time. The Gators were a target from the start of the season, and their performance entering tonight was exemplary. In many ways, a repeat effort tonight would be more impressive than last year.

“Coach [Billy Donovan] is such a great question asker. He went around and asked as many people as he could who had been in that situation a lot of what-ifs,” said Shyatt, who compared the shots Florida took this year to how his teams at Clemson as a coach and assistant got up for Duke and North Carolina. “To see these guys do it before as Cinderellas or unknowns or whatever it was a year ago and then get to this championship game this different way to travel has been a great experience — maybe the best road of all.”

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