Make history or be history?

To go back-to-back as champs, Florida must go belly-to-belly with Ohio State

Ncaa Men's Tournament

April 02, 2007|By Heather A. Dinich | Heather A. Dinich,Sun Reporter

ATLANTA -- For the past year, since Florida won the 2006 national championship and three potential first-round NBA draft picks decided to return to school, those within the program have been asked ad nauseam if they can win it again.

How many times, exactly, have they been asked?

"Eighty-six thousand, three-hundred and forty-four," Florida center Al Horford said with a smile and zero hesitation.

Now the question will finally be answered.

Florida (34-5) is on the brink of history. A win over Ohio State (35-3) tonight in the Georgia Dome would make it the first program since Duke in 1992 to win consecutive national titles. Ohio State is playing for its first national championship since 1960.

All five of Florida's starters returned from last year's championship team, and even though the game features two No. 1 seeds for just the fifth time in tournament history, the Gators are favored because of their depth, athleticism and experience.

"I understand why people would give us no shot in this game on paper," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who returned one starter heading into this season but enters the final on a 22-game winning streak, the longest current streak in the nation. "I think that they are excellent. ... They're a completely different team than they were last year because of experience."

Coach Billy Donovan's philosophy throughout this season has been that Florida is under no pressure to "defend" its title -- the 2006 championship is theirs, he told his players, and can't be taken away. In their quest for this year's title, the Gators handled the scrutiny from the onset of the opening tip-off, and it continued to mount after a 77-56 win over Arkansas on March 11 for the Southeastern Conference championship in this same building.

"There was never the type of attention on our basketball team or them as individuals as there was to start this season," Donovan said. "I don't know if there was any point in time in the season I said, `Wow, these guys are losing it. We're not handling this.'

"No, but there was definitely a time where a guy like Joakim Noah was confused, didn't understand, was trying to figure out all that came with this, as they all were. But I'm just so happy and impressed with the way they've handled this season and the way they've gotten to this point."

Florida enters the final game on a 17-game postseason winning streak, starting after the 2005 NCAA tournament, when Florida lost, 76-65, to Villanova in the second round.

"We're really happy and excited to be in this situation, but we're not satisfied until we get that good thing at the end," Noah said. "Because if you don't get that good thing at the end, it's still going to hurt really bad in that locker room. ... There's only one team in the Final Four that's ultimately going to be happy, and that's the team that wins the championship."

Ohio State is going to do everything in its power to make sure Florida is not the last team standing.

"We don't want a team to go back-to-back, and especially not on us," Buckeyes guard Ron Lewis said. "So we're going to try, to the best of our ability, to stop that."

In an odd twist of fate, the game pits the same two schools that played for football's Bowl Championship Series national championship in January. The Gators defeated Ohio State, 41-14, but both basketball programs downplayed the relevance of that to tonight's game.

"They're both great colleges, Florida and Ohio State," Buckeyes point guard Mike Conley Jr. said. "It's kind of weird they meet up in the championship games. But you know, we're not worried about what the football team did, or how they beat our school. It's a new game. We're looking to show them a different team than what we showed them earlier this year."

Florida handed Ohio State an 86-60 rout Dec. 23 in Gainesville, Fla. Both teams have changed since then, but the biggest difference is the health of the Buckeyes' 7-foot freshman center, Greg Oden, who was recovering from a wrist injury at the time and still shooting free throws with his left hand.

While those within Florida's program dismissed the relevance of that game, Matta said his team learned from that loss.

"I think that game taught us a lot about who we were," Matta said. "We were not a very good basketball team on Dec. 23, and quite honestly, Florida had a lot to do with that."

Conley agreed.

"We've grown as a team since then," he said. "There's a lot of things we weren't doing very well at that time. Our defense wasn't where it's at right now. ... I think we'll be a lot better off in this game."

In order to defeat the defending national champions, they're going to have to be.

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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