Fla. `rock stars' aim to keep rolling

Defending champions fight to emerge from shadows of parents, football team MIDWEST REGIONAL

Ncaa Tournament

March 16, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun reporter

They arrived at the University of Florida three years ago amid little fanfare, most of them more noted for their athletic bloodlines than their basketball abilities.

It all changed in last year's NCAA tournament.

Becoming national champion can do that to a team.

As the Gators begin defense of their title tonight in New Orleans against Jackson State as a No. 1 seed, their profile is as high as the pressure they face.

Who doesn't know Joakim Noah, now famous for his fist pumps and ponytail, if not quite as world renowned as his father, Yannick, was when he won the 1983 French Open?

Or Al Horford, the Dominican center whose father, Tito, never turned into the next great big man he was supposed to be. Or Taurean Green, who didn't get the height of his father, Sidney, but got all of his bravado.

"They're rock stars on this campus now, as they should be," athletic director Jeremy Foley said, sitting in his office in Gainesville on a mid-February afternoon. "They're great kids; they do the right thing."

Yet in a land where football has long been religion and basketball was once considered a pleasant winter diversion, even these Gators know their place in the school's athletic hierarchy.

"It will always be a football school," said Green, the team's junior point guard.

As popular as Noah has become, Tim Tebow is still a level higher, taking over for Chris Leak at quarterback this spring for the school's national champion football team.

As much as Billy Donovan, 41, has dispersed the doubters who said when he arrived 11 years ago that he was just a younger, cheaper imitation of mentor Rick Pitino, football coach Urban Meyer quickly caught up by winning it all his second year.

Donovan's team can stay one national championship ahead of Meyer's by surviving another March and cutting down another pair of nets at the Georgia Dome on April 2, just as it did there Sunday in winning the Southeastern Conference tournament.

If successful, Florida would become the first team since Duke in 1991 and 1992 to repeat as national champions in basketball.

"When we were freshmen, we dreamed of this," Green said in February, when the team was in the midst of a school-record-tying 17-game winning streak. "We dreamed of being in the situation that we're in. That's everybody's dream to win a national championship.

"We want to be known as one of the best teams that ever played."

It has been an interesting season for the Gators. When Noah, Horford and forward Corey Brewer decided to forgo the NBA draft and return for their junior year, Florida was immediately installed as a prohibitive favorite to win again. Nothing changed until a loss at Vanderbilt on Feb. 17 started a streak of three defeats in four games.

The Gators seemed to regain their momentum last week in Atlanta, when they won their three SEC tournament games by an average of almost 20 points.

"One of the things I've talked to those guys about all year long is that last year is over with," Donovan said Monday at a luncheon in Gainesville. "The banner up in the O'Dome is always going to be there. We can go 0-100, and that banner will still be there. This, right now, has nothing to do with last year."

What could help the Gators is that they've been a hunted team all season. It was that way when they went into Rupp Arena and beat Kentucky, and at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym when they lost. Unlike their nicknamesakes, they are not going to sneak up on anybody this time.

"We were aware that as we decided to come back that everybody was going to be gunning for us," said Horford, who leads the team in scoring (13.2) and rebounding (9.1) and is tied with forward-center Noah for blocked shots (60).

Asked about the difference of being a No. 1 seed rather than the No. 1-ranked team, Donovan said: "The target has not grown. It's really about us. It's about what we need to do."

The Gators have not only learned from their experience last year, but from what the football team went through as well. Unlike coaches at other big-time schools, Donovan and Meyer have used the other to motivate their team. Each has spoken to the other's team before big games.

Not only do they share the same fan base, they live next door to each other.

"They have a tremendous amount of respect for each [other], there's not a jealous bone in their body for the other's sport," said Foley, who hired both.

Noah said that in watching the football team's shocking blowout of Ohio State to win the national championship, he was reminded of what the basketball team had done a year ago.

"I think the football team was kind of how we were last year, in a sense that nobody really believed in us to go all the way," he said.

Not sure of what their future at Florida holds, the core of college basketball's defending champions know they are one game away from having to decide about going to the NBA or coming back for one more year. Most in Gainesville believe they will be gone after this year's tournament.

"You really don't think about it right now," said Brewer, who could be the most talented in the group. "We are just trying to finish out this year strong, and then we'll let the fans and everybody else know what the deal is. If we go out, we hope we go out with a national title - let's put it that way."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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