Goodbye to the Gators ... and a Top 10 For 2007-08
ATLANTA -- The Florida Era was finished no matter what happened Monday night, but the euphoria of the victory party made it easier to let go. As the Gators' Oh-Fours -- juniors Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah -- were flashing two-finger, two-peat salutes on the stage at the Georgia Dome, only a small pocket of fans piped up with a chant of "One more year!" The plea quickly lost steam and was overwhelmed by the greater celebratory din.
Florida had just made history, beating Ohio State 84-75 to become the first team since Duke in 1991-92 to repeat as national champions, and only the sixth ever back-to-back title-winners. Noah, the indefatigable icon who last year had told reporters that winning the NCAA tournament was "better than sex" (then adding "I should know, because I'm doing it right!") this time made a statement with his actions on the stage. He first removed his mouthpiece and chucked it down onto the court, then took off each of his black Nikes and wildly heaved them into a sea of blue-and-orange fans. The message was clear: I won't be needing these anymore.
None of the Gators were interested in talking three-peat, and really, after two titles, what statements were left to make? Noah hinted that his work was done, saying, "I remember when I was telling people, 'I'm going back to school,' and they were like, 'What? Are you crazy?' But you know what? I feel like now all of a sudden people understand that it's more than money. It's more than that. Now you guys are going to write about history -- one of the best teams ever. That's special. That's something that everybody in this locker room will never forget."
With those memories fresh in the minds, the Oh-Fours are soon expected to make a collective jump to the '07 NBA Draft, where three of them will be Lottery Picks (Horford, Noah and Brewer, in that order) and Green will be fighting his way out of the second round. "If one of us goes," said Brewer, "we all go."
They're going -- and leaving the title race for '07-08 wide open in their wake. Who will cut down the nets next year in San Antonio? Herewith, a first look at the top 10 for 2007-08 (with the assumption Georgetown's Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, Kansas' Brandon Rush, North Carolina's Brandan Wright, Ohio State's Greg Oden, Texas' Kevin Durant, UCLA's Arron Afflalo and USC's Nick Young also make the early jump to the NBA):
1. NORTH CAROLINA Provided Tyler Hansbrough passes on the draft to work on his offensive repertoire, he'll be back with a vengeance for his junior season. After coming within a Georgetown three-pointer of the Final Four in '07, the Tar Heels' baby backcourt of sophomores Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington has matured enough to help Psycho T take Carolina all the way.
2. UCLA Junior point guard Darren Collison, who was snubbed for All-America honors in '07, will emerge from Afflalo's shadow to become a household name. With five-star freshman power forward Kevin Love -- an old-school post player who's been college-ready since 16 -- adding an offensive dimension inside, a third straight Final Four and coach Ben Howland's first national title are well within reach.
3. KANSAS For the second consecutive season the Jayhawks will be the best team on paper -- but can they get it done in March? Ballhawks Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers will ensure the D remains fierce, but bullish guard Sherron Collins and elastic forward Julian Wright need to become scoring stars. Collins' painful knee injury -- he was said to be crying in practice the day before facing UCLA in the Elite Eight -- may have been the difference between KU heading home, or packing for Atlanta.
4. MEMPHIS Chicago phenom Derrick Rose, Rivals.com's top-ranked point guard in the Class of 2007, joins one of the nation's deepest, most athletic rosters and should form a devastating duo in the backcourt with slasher Chris Douglas-Roberts. Look for another undefeated Conference USA season, and a serious run toward San Antonio.
5. OHIO STATE As long as ultrasteady point guard Mike Conley Jr. returns -- and that's no lock -- the Buckeyes will survive without their bearded baron of the paint. Incoming 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos will try to fill Oden's shoes, while guards Jamar Butler and Daequan Cook, who played auxiliary roles in '07, will shoulder more of the scoring load.
6. LOUISVILLE Rick Pitino's collection of blue-chip youngsters -- particularly breakout NCAA tournament star Edgar Sosa, who dropped 31 on Texas A&M in a near second-round upset -- look ready to out-duel Marquette and Notre Dame for the Big East title.
7. WASHINGTON STATE Tony Bennett-ball was no one-hit wonder. The rookie head coach signed a seven-year extension, and the Cougars only lose forward Ivory Clark from their starting lineup. Led by its Island/Dairyland backcourt blend of Derrick Low (Honolulu) and Kyle Weaver (Beloit, Wis.), Wazzu will be in the thick of a tight Pac-10 race.
8. USC The national spotlight will follow super-recruit O.J. Mayo to Troy, where the Trojans are already loaded. He'll join Daniel Hackett and Gabe Pruitt in a three-headed backcourt, and as long as the chemistry clicks -- and it doesn't become the O.J.-only show -- USC will be a force.
9. TENNESSEE Sweet-shooting Chris Lofton, a likely Wooden Award front-runner, should have a fine swan song in Knoxville after nearly bouncing Ohio State from the bracket in '07. Look for point guard Ramar Smith, one of four freshmen who played major minutes, to have a big sophomore season. He arrived on campus late last fall and missed valuable time to prepare for his rookie campaign.
10. INDIANA Polished scorer Eric Gordon, the Indianapolis recruit who spurned Illinois for the Hoosiers, arrives in Bloomington for what may be his only collegiate season. Paired with forward D.J. White, they'll have Indiana challenging OSU for the Big Ten crown.
ON THE FRINGE: Michigan State, Marquette, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Butler, Texas A&M, Georgetown, Texas, Kansas State, Arizona, Syracuse, LSU, Oregon, West Virginia, Pitt, Duke, NC State, Gonzaga, Stanford, Wisconsin and Mississippi State.
Labels: Atlanta, Final Four, Florida, Ohio State, The Future, UCLA