ATLANTA — The same collection of ready-for-prime-time players and their suave, urbane coach might not return to Florida next season for yet another encore.
Nevertheless, the Gators’ place in history is secure.
Florida’s 84-75 victory over Ohio State in Monday night’s NCAA tournament final completed the Gators’ second straight championship run. It was an impressive, thorough and fitting deconstruction for a team whose stars defied convention last spring and came back for a chance to play for another title.
The Gators (35-5) became the seventh school to repeat, the first since Duke in 1992. They are also just the second program to go back-to-back since UCLA’s legendary seven-year streak ended in 1973.
Florida returned all of its starters from last season’s title team, and each of the five distinct personalities played an influential role in the repeat. There was the goofy, increasingly steady point guard (Taurean Green), the quiet perimeter gunner (Lee Humphrey) and the cerebral, efficient big man (Al Horford).
Throw in the athletic, multidimensional slasher (Corey Brewer) and the talkative, brash — some might say occasionally abrasive — power forward (Joakim Noah), and Florida’s second run was a team for the ages that might not be replicated for decades.
“A lot of people criticized me, but you know what, I don’t care,” Noah said. “People can say whatever they want. At the end, you have to say this kid is a two-time national champion. That’s rare, and it’s more important than money. I feel like a lot of guys on this team feel the same way. That to me is what it’s all about, more than money. It’s about making history.”
They are unlikely to do so again. Brewer, the tournament’s most outstanding player, faces family hardships that will probably prompt him to turn pro. Horford and Noah are among the NBA’s most coveted commodities — athletic big men who can run the floor. All three could be lottery picks.
Of course, the scenario was similar a year ago, but it is probable the Gators’ last stand together was their meeting with competitive greatness at the Georgia Dome.
“I don’t know what the future holds for any of our guys,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who spent the last two weeks of the tournament brushing aside questions about the opening at Kentucky. “Twenty years ago they’d all be coming back. There would be none of those issues again. The whole thing would start — can you three-peat? I think those things are what makes it so difficult in today’s day and age to try to get to that point.”
Next year will no doubt be far different, and not just because many of the Gators players are likely to go their separate ways. It is presumed their antagonists on Monday will lose 7-foot freshman center Greg Oden to the NBA Draft. As Oden shuffled to the Ohio State bus, he presumably thought about his team’s missed opportunity.
Similar thoughts did not permeate the Florida locker room. There was revelry and laughter much like there was a year ago when the Gators throttled UCLA for their first title.
That was the cap to a relatively surprising run, but Florida’s ability to withstand the constant onslaught of expectations this season will go down as one of its trademarks, including from a television commentator Brewer heard Monday who opted against acknowledging the Gators’ tremendous run.
“He said we’re not even the top five teams to play the game if we win the national championship,” Brewer said. “He might want to go do his research. The numbers don’t lie.”
Indeed, one of Florida’s most definitive statistical achievements was five starters who averaged double figures in scoring in both championship seasons. With so many weapons and virtually no way to contain all of them, the selfless Gators were perhaps the most invulnerable champion in more than a decade. Ohio State’s Ron Lewis coyly called Florida “a good team” the day before the final, reserving the term “great” for the likes of the Chicago Bulls championship teams of the 1990s.
After the Gators’ second title run was completed at Lewis’ expense, it is fair to say the appellation fits. If nothing else, history will certainly render that verdict when assessing the legacies of college basketball’s dynasties.
“It was great team,” senior forward Chris Richard said. “It was said we were a good team, but I don’t know. I think we’re the best good team that ever won the championship.”