On the toes of another Final Four, and in accordance with The Computer Newspaper’s P.I.E. retrospective for the year 2007, now feels like the right time to look back five years at the back-to-back champion Florida Gators– the most important college basketball team of the past twenty years.
[It is not that brash of a statement. Two decades ago, in 1992, Duke was winning their second of back-to-back championships and the Fab Five, culturally speaking, was at the peak of their powers. Since then, Florida is the only other repeat champion (and smart money is on that trend continuing), and well, there cannot be another Fab Five.]
So the question is: should you really give a shit about this?
Lucky for you, I have the right personal dichotomy to answer that question. On the one hand, I was raised on sports and can recite trivia like it’s scripture. However, as an adult, I understand there is more to the world than, say, the Pro Bowl, and like everyone else, loathe the state of 24/7 sports media where superlatives and debate become either redundant or unfounded. I come to you sagacious, but jaded (isn’t that always the case); in this spirit, give me a chance.
We are here today on the third weekend of another March Madness, and as is tradition, desperately trying to maintain a level of interest in the festivities. Which is not our fault–the annual charm of the NCAA tournament peaks in the opening weekend because of bracket culture and the plethora of ‘possible upsets’ to cheer for. Our national consciousness is riveted. Then, it wanes slightly, and we get to the last three games, completely fatigued. This year, we had two No. 1 seeds hampered by critical injuries that kept them from title contention, so we get a Final Four that has the one prominent storyline: man, Kentucky’s good, eh?
Kentucky is good. They have the Player of the Year in Anthony Davis, an automatic No. 1 pick in the draft this June, and also Kidd-Gilchrist, who may end up being the second player selected, not to mention their teammates who also will all get guaranteed contracts professionally. They have not played a truly close game in March. They are 36-2 and neither loss is within their conference. Former Maryland coach Gary Williams this week claimed they would beat the Wizards. Beyond these basic facts, I lack the expertise (not to mention motivation) to talk about Kentucky’s team this year. All I know, and which is the crux of this document, is that they are not going to win the title next year.
The Florida Gators, on the other hand, won consecutive titles in ’06 and ’07 with the same starting lineup, and is still the only team in history to do that. Yeah, ever. I was shocked by this, too. Then I started digging. Before 2007, Laettner’s Dukies (more like Dookies) went back-to-back in 1992, and before that, you have to go back to 1973 to the tail end of UCLA’s ‘Woodstock’ dynasty to find another repeat champion, and that UCLA team had just won 10 of the past 12 championships. So to say that winning consecutive titles is rare is an alliGATOR of an understatement.
[Granted, the NCAA’s postseason is a single elimination tournament, so this rareness is universally understood. But…that…means…the margin for error is incredibly small–to cut down consecutive nets, you are not allowed to have a bad game for 12 straight outings. Which, considering we are talking about 20 and 21 year-olds who have the world’s attention, puts the word ‘exception’ in ‘exceptional.’]
Conventional wisdom: college teams do not repeat because too many players leave early for the NBA. Yes, but no. As I said, back-to-back titles has happened twice in the past 40 years and the yearly exodus of 18-20 year-olds to the pros did not really boom until the past 15. And you can’t say things like ‘well if Carmelo stayed for his sophomore season, Syracuse would have won two in a row’ because if there is no early-entry possibility, that means Lebron James is an incoming freshman at the same time, Dwyane Wade is a junior. It all averages out.
[There is, however, a little truth to every fallacy. The current system (age minimum of 19 to enter the draft) has really hurt college basketball. The NBA, in 2005, had too many immature flies in the ointment, so decreed that the top high school players must attend college for one year, leading to a scorched NCAA landscape of disinterested freshmen. The turnover at big programs is perpetual, and consequently, fans have little chance to develop an appeal for any players or teams, this 2012 Kentucky team of ‘one-and-done’ players as the latest example].
But as far as players leaving early for the NBA, 2007 is not that long ago. There have been at least 30 early-entrants every year for the past dozen (the peak was 49 in 2005, months before the NBA created the aforementioned age limit). So when Florida, fresh off a championship, decided to all return to school to run it back, they became The Aberration. And despite how you may have felt then regarding their arrogance or Joakim Noah’s general physical appearance, it has to now be, bias removed, impossible to dislike a bunch of guys that gave up riches to stay in school and actually try to be a great team. Joakim Noah and Al Horford staying for their junior year was an unnecessary personal risk.
We forget it, but Noah was the consensus No. 1 pick after being the MVP of the Final Four in 2006 (which also says something about the quality of the ’06 draft class, one of the weakest in years: Andrea Bargnani, LaMarcus Aldridge, Adam Morrison, Ty Thomas, Shelden Williams were the eventual top 5 picks). Noah makes more money by leaving early than he would by staying (he slipped to No. 9 pick the following draft), not to mention the calculated injury risk all of these young guys have to weigh every year when they decide if they should get a contract now to take care of their families (MitiGator: Noah comes from money). But the boys all decided to stay in Gainesville, and do what no one had ever done: win another ring with the same starting five.
As if the above is not endearing enough (in retrospect), this was a dominant team that won via chemistry and balance. I know those are the least sexy (and most trite) descriptors for an under-30 sports fan to hear, but there is a reason why old men respect the hell out of the San Antonio Spurs–raw talent comes and goes and is oft-wasted, but teams that put individual success aside are the diamonds in the rough. The Gators weren’t exactly Hickory High, far from it, but the results on the court show a fascinating stability and chemistry.
2006 scoring averages: Noah: 14, Green: 13, Brewer: 12, Horford: 11, Humphrey: 11
2007 scoring averages: Green: 13, Brewer: 13, Horford: 13, Noah: 11, Humphrey: 10
I mean, really, that’s kind of nuts. Those are stats that actually articulate what we saw on the court: unselfish, balanced basketball.
As personalities, they blended perfectly. Noah was the loudmouth, the running ponytail, the fire in their belly. Horford was his quiet counterpart down low, the immovable force. Corey Brewer was the swagger, the defense, the style (the Jalen Rose character). Taurean Green was the speedy and savvy point guard. Lee Humphrey was the token white shooter (shockingly, he has the most 3s in NCAA tournament history). The four of them (not Humphrey) were roommates for the duration of their three years in Gainesville.
As I’ve suggested, this is a team that clearly thrived on its own camaraderie, which is typical for championship teams, but usually it follows the Michigan-St/Maryland model of the early 2000s where it’s comprised of upperclassmen who have no promising NBA future ahead of them–they don’t have the incredible athleticism, they just know how to play together and have done it together for years. The Florida guys (including 6th man Chris Richard), on the other hand, did this as sophomores and juniors, and all were drafted in the first round in 2007, with Noah/Horford/Brewer in the top 10. Obviously, if your teams are in the Final Four for consecutive years, your success is extremely visible and the protagonists get drafted, but unlike Mateen Cleaves and Juan Dixon and Sean May and countless others, the Florida trio were great picks. Noah and Horford, specifically, are already All-Star caliber players.
This is where we elucidate my final point regarding the greatness of the 2007 Florida Gators. For Noah and Horford, of the 10 combined seasons they have played in the pros, only their rookie years did their teams have losing records. Corey Brewer was drafted to a far crappier T-Wolves team, but once he could escape, was sought out by the Mavericks to come off the bench (so he’s now got an NBA ring, too). These guys, as they say, seem to know how to win. Surely, some of that is nature, and some of it is nurture, which is what makes their experience at Florida so special. They learned how to play an uptempo, pressing style from Billy Donovan, their beloved coach (worth noting: Donovan was an investment banker on Wall St. before joining Rick Pitino’s coaching staff in 1988, and months after their second title in 2007, turned down John-Calipari’s eventual-job at Kentucky and a $27 million offer from the Orlando Magic).
This Florida team, by virtue of returning for their junior years, showed loyalty and a sense of history and responsibility most young people lack, a professionalism rarely seen at age 20. These are intangibles that again and again translate to a meaningful NBA career. If you are an NBA team, you are legally required to first select players with transcendent talent (à la John Wall) because they do, in fairness, have the best chance to be franchise guys. But those types also have the best chance to become rich, complacent players that kill an NBA team’s chance of winning. Say what you will about Joakim Noah, he is a seasoned soldier when it comes to competitive basketball, an addict to success who is also kind of a prick, but hey, somebody has to fill Kevin Garnett’s shoes.
When we talk about players winning rings in the NBA, we are talking about a plutocratic system, a doozy of an Occupy situation; the top percentile (i.e. skilled big men like Duncan and Shaq, scoring title swingmen like Kobe and MJ) hog all of the jewelry. When we talk about players that have won an NCAA title, we talk about mere feathers in a cap; it is a ‘neat’ piece of trivia. But two NCAA rings? When they only played three years together? That’s whassup.
If and when Kentucky steamrolls through this Final Four, we owe it to our 2012 perspective to recall that, as a rule in sports, they do hand out titles every year–it just does not follow that those winning teams are necessarily worth remembering.
for a full description of our P.I.E. retrospective series, please see https://computernewspaper.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/2007-a-year-in-review-2/