Sports Nut

The Ring Two

How the Florida Gators repeated as NCAA Tournament champs.

Florida Gators Joakim Noah and Al Horford celebrate their victory

Ohio State superfreshman Greg Oden barely broke a sweat against Georgetown on Saturday before he had to sit with foul trouble. By Monday night, the striped shirts had gotten the memo that people wanted to see Oden play with that impassive look on his face, not sit on the bench with that impassive look on his face. Not only did Oden avoid foul trouble last night, he rampaged through the paint like a rhino. There are so many no-calls to choose from—my favorite was when he hip-checked Corey Brewer in the nether regions, sending the Gators swingman to the floor in brief but intense pain.

Despite Oden’s free rein to flex inside, Florida handled Ohio State easily, becoming the first college team to repeat since Duke in 1992. The Gators made it look easier than the 84-75 final score, although if the Buckeyes had been even poor from the 3-point line, it might have been a nail-biter. Instead, OSU was atrocious, going 4-for-23.

More than anything else, last night’s game proved that the NCAA needs to get serious about pushing back the 3-point line. When a dominating 7-footer like Oden goes for 25 points and 12 rebounds and his team never seriously threatens, then something is clearly out of whack. Ron Lewis, the senior guard who sent OSU’s second-round game against Xavier to OT with a dramatic 3, missed all four of his tries from beyond the arc. When Lewis couldn’t hit, the Buckeyes were sunk—the game was decided by the jump shooter, not the once-in-a-generation big man. Making the 3 more difficult would restore the game’s proper balance.

Even if the Buckeyes had shot well, this Florida team would have found a way to win. The Gators had a different hero in each tournament game—this time it was the long-limbed Brewer and powerful sixth man Chris Richard. But as always, it was Florida’s inside-outside balance and underrated defense that proved unstoppable.

Florida coach Billy Donovan’s finest strategem came in the preseason, when he set up a conditioning program that allowed the Gators to run opponents ragged despite not being particularly deep. Florida aimed to exhaust Oden, and did so by constantly rotating big men on him. But giants are easy to tire—it’s more impressive that Florida had Ohio State’s guards desperately gasping for air. As in that other title game between the two schools, the Gators were always a step quicker.

The Buckeyes made the Gators work for the title. But every time Ohio State sniffed a rally, Lee Humphrey hit a three, or Chris Richard or Al Horford got a bucket inside. Then OSU’s legs went. Three plays during a two-minute stretch midway through the second half defined the game:

1) Horford blocks a shot on the defensive end and Oden is too winded to reach for the loose ball. The Gators get out on the break and Horford dunks. Oden is still on the other side of midcourt.

2) Richard, Florida’s muscular but limited forward, maneuvers Oden under the basket, scores, and gets fouled.

3) Oden summons the last of his hops to block a shot, but the loose ball is retrieved by the Gators. They work it to Humphrey, who drains a 3. Ballgame.

Florida fans must now start worrying about the fate of their head coach. Billy Donovan is in the crosshairs of conference rival Kentucky. Although it seems insane to leave at a moment of such incredible triumph, I’d say Donovan is likely to depart. The money bump is one factor; equally important is that after winning two titles, Donovan may feel that the best challenge out there is restoring UK to its expected prominence.

And while Florida and Ohio State have a stranglehold on big-time athletics right now, don’t count on either to maintain megaprogram status. The Gators won two titles in a row because a perfectly balanced and unselfish team won it all as underclassmen then returned for another helping of glory. That won’t happen again. Florida reminds me of Michigan State circa 2001. A championship and multiple Final Fours seemingly heralded untrammeled dominance in East Lansing. Instead, the Spartans have regressed to the mean—they’re now just a great basketball team, not the greatest in the land. Florida will continue to be a Sweet 16 presence, but they won’t pass UCLA in championship banners any time this millennium. Kansas and North Carolina will remain perennial powerhouses. Florida will return to the usual cycle of solid-but-not-transcendent programs.

As for Ohio State, Oden and freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. are NBA-bound. Welcome back to Earth, Buckeyes. The Ohio State guys will be seeing several Gators in the pros, but not before, as Joakim Noah eloquently put it after the game, they “do it big, all day and all night.” The rest of college basketball is partying, too—celebrating the end of Florida’s two-year reign of terror.