Gators' gamble pays off

3 potential first-round picks returned to Florida to try for a repeat

April 04, 2007|By Heather A. Dinich | Heather A. Dinich,Sun reporter

Atlanta -- Possibly even rarer than Florida's back-to-back national championships was how the Gators accomplished the feat - with three potential first-round NBA draft picks who decided one more run at the title outweighed the lucrative lure of pro ball.

Florida's starting trio of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer went against the grain and instead of mutimillion-dollar contracts were rewarded with a cap, a T-shirt and a pair of scissors to cut down the net for the second straight year. The Gators (35-5) became the first team since Duke in 1992 to repeat as national champions, and the second to win consecutive titles since the tournament field expanded in 1985. Florida is just the seventh program in the tournament's 69-year history to win back-to-back titles.

It is a scenario that Florida coach Billy Donovan said he hopes will influence other players "because the story that happened this year is so right for college basketball and it's so right for young players." The current rule requires all players to be at least one year removed from high school before becoming eligible to play in the NBA, but it's becoming increasingly difficult for college coaches to keep their rosters intact - which is just one reason repeat champions are so rare.

"I'm not sitting there saying that every single player should come back to school and never, ever leave early," Donovan said. "I'm not saying that. But I feel bad for kids that are pushed out or given bad advice or wrong information, and people make comments about draft status and stock.

"I think what speaks volumes about these kids is to get the national championship, is that in this day and age they came back to play and compete because they were happy doing that and they wanted to take on that challenge."

Four of the five starters who defeated Ohio State, 84-75, in the Georgia Dome on Monday night are juniors. Guard Lee Humphrey is the lone senior, raising the question, is there any chance the others will return for a threepeat?

"I couldn't even tell you right now," Brewer said. "I'm just so happy we just won the national championship. It hasn't crossed my mind about anything else."

Brewer's decision to return last April was somewhat surprising considering the health of his father, whose hospital bills were rising because of open-heart surgery and diabetes.

"He could have been in a situation where maybe his family said, `You really need to do this for us, if you can do this,'" Donovan said. "Never once. They wanted his happiness first."

Noah was asked after the game if there was any chance he would return for his senior year, but the Gators' ponytailed personality just wanted to relish the moment.

"Right now, I don't know what we are going to do," he said. "I feel like it is all about enjoying this moment right now. I feel like it is always about what is going to happen next, and it is not about that. I am looking forward to just going and chilling tonight with the fellows. You know what I am saying? And then maybe going back to Gainesville and going to the club and getting some of that Gator love. It's not about that. We'll talk about that later."

It's an inevitable topic of conversation for Ohio State coach Thad Matta and his impressive 7-foot freshman forward, Greg Oden. Matta said he has no idea if Oden will leave the team and enter the NBA draft because they "never discussed it."

"I think Gregory and I will sit down when we get back and kind of talk," Matta said. "The great thing about him, I know he hasn't thought about it. You know, everybody kind of stuck to what we said we were going to do, and that was going to be compete for the national championship. We got here."

So did Florida. Twice.

"I'm hoping these kids can be a source of inspiration, strength, for some of these kids that say, I really don't want to go, but I'm worried about what's going to happen," Donovan said. "I'm sure our guys went through that. They probably went through, `Oh my gosh, am I ever going to be this good, as good as everybody thinks I am?' - the expectations. I tell them all the time - you're not tricking anybody. You got to go out and compete and play and work and get better."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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