Jared Trexler, Contributing TSN Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Joakim Noah served ace after ace. Billy Donovan finally got his just due. And a program void of history finally broke through behind a textbook performance of teamwork.
Gainesville no longer yearns year round for football Saturdays in the Swamp, as Florida celebrated its first NCAA men's basketball national championship into Tuesday's early morning hours.
Among the palm trees, pina coladas and passion for pigskin now sits college basketball's ultimate prize.
A NCAA Tournament full of dramatic finishes didn't carry through to Indianapolis. George Mason ran out of its borrowed time. LSU's struggles from the perimeter finally caught up with it. UCLA's basketball IQ suffered lapses on Monday night.
More importantly, the Gators dispelled the notion that they were too young by playing two flawless contests on the Final Four stage.
"It's just sheer love and just the people -- when you win, you want to see the people that you love," Joakim Noah said. "That's where they were. So whatever it takes to see the people that you love."
Each Florida player had a role and filled it to perfection. Corey Brewer will be in UCLA guard Aaron Afflalo's nightmares all the way back to Los Angeles. Lee Humphrey spotted up around the three-point circle and drained dagger after dagger. Al Horford wore down Luc Richard Mbah a Moute with a collection of strength and raw athleticism unlike anything the UCLA freshman saw playing in the Pac-10.
Finally, Noah made momentum-carrying plays on both ends of the floor and infected his teammates with an emotion that prevented them from playing tight.
When the buzzer sounded, Noah made a dash toward his father, 1983 French Open champion Yannick Noah. The clay of Roland Garros and the hardwood of Indianapolis are far apart, but on Monday night a famous father and his now famous son were equals.
"It's just sheer love and just the people -- when you win, you want to see the people that you love," Noah said. "That's where they were. So whatever it takes to see the people that you love."
THE NCAA TOURNAMENT JOURNAL
Thursday, March 16: Brackets across the country dodge several early bullets. Boston College, a trendy Final Four selection out of the Minneapolis region, is on the ropes against Pacific. The Tigers seize a six-point lead in overtime. Basketball enthusiasts nationwide scrounge for matches. An extra round of beers is ordered in the local bar, a necessity to drowning one's sorrows. BC's Craig Smith makes two free throws in the closing seconds to force double-overtime (the bracket is only half ripped). The Eagles dominate the next five minutes. People nationwide ask for tape.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee defeats Oklahoma, opening the floodgates to a rash of upsets. Montana upends Nevada (nobody east of the Rockies cares). Chris Lofton's miracle heave saves Tennessee against Winthrop. The "geniuses" that predicted an Eagles' upset become silent. The Big East finishes 0-3 on Day One. Indiana's Mike Davis and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison live for another day.
Friday, March 17: The Madness becomes sadistic. The afternoon kicks off with Northwestern State shocking Iowa. Everyone begins the Steve Alford to Indiana pool. I contend the prodigal son won't be offered the position. I dance like Northwestern State's Jermaine Wallace in the coming weeks when Indiana hires Kelvin Sampson.
The night session in Dayton, Ohio is torture. George Mason, without senior guard Tony Skinn, proverbially kicks Michigan State south of East Lansing. Head coach Tom Izzo stares blankly at a team he does not recognize. Youthful and nervous, North Carolina gets pushed to the limit by Murray State. The Tar Heels come out victorious but vulnerable.
Lawrence begins the "Fire Bill Self" chants again as Kansas is knocked out in the first round for the second consecutive season. Many amateur bracketologists (including this guy) bought into the Jayhawks' hype as a team peaking at the right time. Husbands wake up their wives in bed. They rant about Kansas costing them for the second straight campaign. They wonder aloud if the $25 entry fee was worth it. They then proceed to the couch with pillow and blanket in hand.
Saturday, March 18: Duke cruises into the Sweet 16 to square off against LSU, which barely defeats Texas A&M on a Darrel Mitchell three in the closing seconds. Davis walks off the court as Indiana head coach for the last time. Most people barely notice. The 'Zags get UCLA in the round of 16, as the Bruins hold their collective breath when Alabama guard Ronald Steele puts up a good look at a three to win the game. It's amazing how Steele could have changed the complexion of the tournament if the shot went in.
BC keeps brackets alive with a convincing victory over Montana. Florida doesn't suffer the usual second-round defeat, trouncing a veteran Wisconsin- Milwaukee squad. I'll say it once and get it over with. I was completely wrong about the Gators.
Sunday, March 19: The three remaining top seeds advance. The bottom half of the Washington, DC bracket turns into a mid-major convention. With Wichita State already in the Sweet 16 after beating Tennessee on Saturday, George Mason falls behind 16-2 then storms back to upset defending national champion North Carolina. Fans in Storrs high-five each other. The bracket opens up for the Huskies. One week later, Storrs is silent.
Georgetown also upends Ohio State on Sunday, which isn't a stunning surprise since most presumed the Buckeyes were a year away from serious national status.
Thursday, March 23: The greatest collection of games in NCAA Tournament history. LSU guard Garrett Temple becomes one with Duke sharpshooter J.J. Redick, suffocating and frustrating the All-American all night long. Duke's defeat brings cheers in Austin, but only after Kenton Paulino pushes the Longhorns to the Elite Eight with a dramatic three at the buzzer. Again, Texas wins in spite of head coach Rick Barnes. Why wouldn't you foul a deadly three- point shooting team like West Virginia with a three-point lead instead of allowing it an opportunity at a tie?
Memphis cruises past upstart Bradley, which showcased seven-footer Patrick O'Bryant during victories over Kansas and Pittsburgh to reach the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga seems well on its way to the regional finals, as UCLA can't throw the ball in the Pacific Ocean over the game's first 10 minutes. In fact, the 'Zags hold a commanding 71-62 lead with 3:26 left. The next 3 1/2 minutes are a blur. It all ends with J.P. Batista being stripped from behind by Jordan Farmar, who finds Mbah a Moute for the game-winning layup with 9.8 ticks left. The comeback is so unexpected that Morrison starts crying before the game is even over.
Friday, March 24: Another fantastic night of college basketball. George Mason continues its Cinderella ride with a victory over Wichita State while Florida pushes past Georgetown and into the Elite Eight. The other two contests are instant classics. BC jumps out to a 25-9 edge and "experts" everywhere (myself included) look brilliant.
Then, everything slowly starts to unravel. The Wildcats shoot just well enough. Villanova gets just enough questionable calls to go in its favor. Boston College goes away from the punishing style that had built the large lead just long enough.
Washington also has Connecticut on the ropes all game long and looks like a winner before big-game shooter Rashad Anderson receives the ball on the right wing in the final seconds of regulation. I know Anderson is getting the ball. Washington knows the sharpshooter is getting the ball. In fact, I'm almost certain that my two dogs know Anderson is going to take the big shot.
He makes it anyway. UConn eventually moves on in overtime.
Saturday, March 25: High-flyer Tyrus Thomas and space-eater Glen Davis dominate Texas' frontline. UCLA's defense smothers a young, undisciplined Memphis' offense. Half of the Final Four is set.
Sunday, March 26: For information on the Patriots' wild ride please read my previous column (talk about self promotion). Florida proves too big and athletic on the interior for the guard-oriented Wildcats, who suffer through another poor shooting night in defeat. The Final Four is complete with two SEC programs, a former national power and a mid-major darling.
The Final Four: Gator domination. While the crowning event of the college basketball season does not match the overall excitement displayed throughout the tournament, it leaves no doubt which team is the best.