Sports Nut

The Gators Are Greater

Why Florida dominated the NCAA Tournament.

Premonition is nowhere to be found on John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, but it surely was a bad omen for UCLA when the legendary coach checked into a hospital Sunday for “undisclosed but not life threatening” reasons. Even Wooden’s best teams would have struggled against Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey, and the rest of the Florida Gators. Noah in particular was dominant—16 points, nine rebounds, a title-game record six blocks, and an array of hypercheesy, postgame winks and poses that will be remembered as long as his great play.

UCLA seemed astounded to be on the court with an opponent who could swat away its shots, get to any spot on the court, and dunk with impunity. Once the Bruins realized Florida wasn’t fazed by their tight D, they cashed it in. Only point guard Jordan Farmar played with any sort of effectiveness. He seemed to realize the game was all on him, at one point forcing up a running one-handed 3-pointer, only to have it rejected by Noah 20 feet from the basket.

Florida’s 3-point specialist Humphrey followed his heroics against George Mason with another great game—the contest was essentially over after he converted a four-point play midway through the first half. Humphrey opened up the paint with long 3s, handled the ball against UCLA’s ball-hawking backcourt, and turned in an underrated defensive effort. In sum, Humphrey has the complete game that supposed national player of the year J.J. Redick so clearly lacks. (While accepting the Naismith Award last night, Redick revealingly told the crowd, “My mother is fortunate enough to be with me tonight.”)

The only lingering question from this season will be—how the hell did Florida lose to NIT champion South Carolina twice? It doesn’t compute that this team was unranked before the season, and only occasionally registered with those of us who don’t track RPI ratings. The only team to give them a game in the NCAA Tournament was Georgetown, who slowed the pace to a crawl and had the size to frustrate Florida’s “bigs,” as the hipsters call frontcourt players these days. The Gators shredded all other comers with a breathtaking display of speed, sharp passing, defense, and aggression.

The Gators are, most of all, a testament to Billy Donovan’s recruiting prowess. Before the Final Four, the talk was that LSU, UCLA, and George Mason succeeded by recruiting local guys who grew up playing togetherFlorida, on the other hand, has Joakim Noah from New York by way of France, Al Horford from Michigan via the Dominican Republic, and Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer from Tennessee. * Maybe recruiting the hometown kids is overrated.

As anyone who watched this weekend knows, the Final Four was an anticlimax to a thrilling tournament. On Saturday, my wife and father-in-law played an evil April Fool’s Day joke, convincing me for several hours that the Florida-George Mason and LSU-UCLA games had been postponed because of a bomb threat. As it turned out, they were trying to do me a favor. If I had been just a little more gullible, I would have saved myself from the most boring games of the last three weeks.

So, why was the last furlong so … blah? Last year’s tournament had a similar feel—an incredible weekend of games that whittled the field from 16 to 4, followed by a less-than-scintillating last weekend. Maybe it’s time to stop playing basketball games in cavernous domed stadiums. It seemed that no team save Florida was comfortable shooting the ball in the RCA Dome’s roomy environs. I also blame imprecise bracketology. Just because a team wins its region doesn’t mean it can hang with a more powerful Final Four opponent. The cauldron of the national semifinals revealed the non-Florida teams as severely flawed: LSU was lacking from the outside, UCLA was inconsistent offensively, and George Mason was simply not deep or talented enough to complete its miracle run.

The Final Four boredom was a clear karmic rebuke to killjoy Billy Packer, whose lack of grace toward the feel-good mid-majors overshadowed his usual sharp analysis. Packer is widely loathed for his big-conference shilling, but he calls a good game, picking out matchup problems and identifying trends instead of merely polishing the stars’ apples like Dickie V. Packer saw very early that UCLA center Ryan Hollins wasn’t strong enough to handle Horford and that Green was handling UCLA’s pressure with ease. With only five minutes gone by, Packer correctly assessed that UCLA was “out of control.”

As it happens, nothing Packer or his unusually hoarse and somewhat lifeless partner Jim Nantz said could match Clark Kellogg’s linguistic brilliance at the top of the broadcast. Kellogg, the man who gave us such gems as “stat sheet stuffer supreme,” likened Florida’s long-armed, headbanded Corey Brewer to a potato: “He can come baked or hashed, fried or mashed.” Look for the Gators to be back near the top next year. And look for Corey Brewer on a Waffle House menu sometime soon.

Correction, April 4, 2006: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that Florida Gators guard Taurean Green is from Tennessee. Green is from Florida. Gators forward Corey Brewer is from Tennessee. Return to the corrected sentence.