Has it really been ten years since a starting lineup of the Oh-Fours and Lee Humphrey set up camp in Indianapolis for the Final Four? It still seems like only yesterday that the Gators laid waste to Cinderella George Mason in the semifinals and then destroyed UCLA in the NCAA championship game. The memories are still strong and powerful, so indulge me if you will as I use this space to remember Final Four Weekend at the RCA Dome.
Thursday morning: I flew into Cincinnati and drove to Indianapolis, which is two hours away. There was a method to my madness. The drive to Indy would take me close enough to Milan, Indiana, the real live small town that the movie “Hoosiers” inspired. I stop for lunch in Versailles, Indiana. I’m wearing a Gator jacket. Before I finish lunch I’ve had conversations with a dozen people, all of it about basketball. The last group includes the parents of UF trainer Duke Werner. He’s from Versailles. Now I know why everyone I talked to was a Florida fan.
Milan is a couple of miles down the road. I went to the museum dedicated to the 1954 Milan Indians, who beat Crispus Attucks and Oscar Robertson in the state semifinals, before beating Muncie Central for the championship. I saw all the pictures of Bobby Plump, the real star who the character Jimmy Chitwood was based upon. I bought the T-shirt and other memorabilia before driving on to Indy.
Friday practice: All four teams are required to have a public walk-through and when I say public, I mean with 40,000 or so watching on. George Mason did its practice before the Gators. That’s when I decided if I ever hear Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” again I might be tempted to do something rash. How many times did the George Mason band play it? How many times did their 10,000 or so fans sing it and mostly off-key? How many times did I wish I had a 10-pound bag of ground pepper that I could heave into their band knowing they wouldn’t be able to play?
When the Gators came out to practice, they were so loose that you almost wondered if they were taking this seriously. Then Billy Donovan blew the whistle and the demeanor of the entire team changed. They went from a team of jokers to a team on a mission. At that moment there was no more “I hope” in my description of what was going to take place the next three days. I knew. The Gators were going to win it all.
Florida 73, George Mason 58: After Friday’s practice, the media stampeded to Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green. The Oh-Fours were the media rage. They almost forgot about the guy Noah called Humpty-Dump. Apparently, so did the George Mason coaches and defenders. After the Gators almost did a sleep walk to a 31-26 first half lead on Saturday, Lethal Weapon III was unleashed. In the first two minutes of the second half, Lee Humphrey drilled three straight 3-pointers and whatever dreams of GMU’s Cinderella story continuing went the way of the 5-cent cigar. Hump’s 3-balls forced Mason to loosen up its everybody in the paint defense and when that happened, Horford, Noah and Brewer owned the inside and the carriage GMU rode to the RCA Dome turned into a pumpkin. Humphrey and Brewer scored 19 each, Taurean Green got 15 and Noah had 12 to go with 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 4 blocked shots.
Sunday practice at the RCA Dome: In the second game on Saturday, UCLA’s guards completely dominated the LSU guards. It was ugly. When I sat with Billy Packer for a few minutes Sunday afternoon, he thought the UCLA guards were just too physical for Green and Hump. The UCLA strategy to get to the championship game was a page from Al McGuire – cut the head off the snake. In other words render the point guard useless.
In talking with Mark Wise, he told me that UCLA would try to take out Taurean but Florida would simply run the offense through Noah, who just a few years before was a point guard. Watching practice, Billy Donovan didn’t tip his hand about the strategy. Noah was handling the ball a lot, but he always did.
Sunday evening: A tornado ripped through downtown Indianapolis. I was in one of the burbs enjoying dinner with an old friend who had done grad school at UF but upon leaving to go back to the hotel, I watched the tornado from a distance. A couple of times, the rented Ford Explorer felt like it was going to be lifted off its wheels and sent flying.
Monday morning: As I walk out of the hotel, I’m told there is an outlet mall 40 miles to the south that has one of the great Polo stores on the planet. I maxed out a Visa card.
Monday afternoon: I run into Nolan Richardson in the hotel next to the RCA Dome where UF is holding a pre-game pep rally. Nolan and I haven’t talked in years but we spend at least an hour talking about when we first met. He was the juco coach at Western Texas and I was writing sports for the Richmond News-Leader. I hand a hand in helping him land Paul Pressey, Franklin Bennett, Ron Portee and Richard “Slop” Williams off a great George Wythe team that should have won the state title. They were a package deal and Nolan took them all. They won the 1980 juco national title. We also talked a lot about Don Haskins and UTEP. Nolan played college basketball for Haskins, who took UTEP to the 1966 national championship.
Monday, one hour before game time: I’m standing in a hallway talking to old friend and Georgia SID Claude Felton when all the UCLA greats come in as a group complete with body guards. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Jamal Wilkes, Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe are easy to identify. I remark to Claude, “UCLA is going to out-tradition us.” Claude answers, “You have no tradition … until tonight.”
The game: UCLA sends its guards after Taurean Green but Florida was well prepared. Taurean’s job is to get the ball past midcourt and when UCLA tries to double him up, get the ball to Noah at the top of the key. It works like a charm and UCLA has no answers. Taurean only scored 2 points but he had 8 assists. Noah becomes the straw that stirs the drink at both ends of the floor. He finishes the night with 16 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 6 blocked shots. When UCLA shots clang off the rim, Noah and Horford rebound, put the ball on the deck and get the Gators into the break. UCLA has no chance to set up its smothering halfcourt defense because its players can’t keep up with Florida’s full court speed.
The Gators took the lead for good at 9-6 on a Brewer 3-ball assisted by Noah. It’s 36-25 at the half and once the second half begins, it’s Lethal Weapon III time again. Humpers nails two 3-balls and UCLA’s goose is cooked. I look over at Walton and Kareem. They look as if they’ve seen a ghost. This UCLA dance girl – I’ll call her Bambi simply because she looked like a Bambi to me – who is stunningly beautiful, is about 10 feet from my press row seat. On a ball heading out of bounds that Noah saves, she calls Jo “ugly.” He grins and points to the scoreboard and says, “That’s ugly! That’s real ugly.”
When it’s over, the Gators have a surprisingly easy 73-57 win and now all Billy Packer and the other “experts” can talk about is Florida will be back to square one the next year because there is no way Horford, Noah and Brewer will come back.
In the locker room, Noah holds court and he’s stand-up good. Horford is cerebral with his answers. Taurean comes across like an imp but that’s the way he is all the time. Corey is bright lights big city. The country boy from small town Tennessee is wearing his non-stop grin, talking about how just three years ago he was helping his dad on Saturdays with the trash collection business. Hump is trying to explain that when he gets his feet set and his shoulders square, he feels he’s got a pretty decent chance of making a shot. Chris Richard is folding his uniform neatly. There are managers who would pick it up wherever he threw it but CR is all about neat.
Outside the locker room, Billy Donovan is surrounded by reporters. Inside, in the assistant coaches’ locker room, I spend a couple of minutes with Anthony Grant, Donnie Jones and Larry Shyatt. Anthony and DJ were there with Billy from day one when Jeremy Foley shocked the world by hiring a not yet 30-year-old head coach to replace Lon Kruger. Shyatt was the newbie but it was his defensive schemes that transformed the Gators from good to great. Shy hugs me. He’s got tears in his eyes. If you know Shy, he is prone to do things like that. “Can you believe this?” he asks me. Before I can answer, he says, “You live your entire life hoping just once you’re dream will come true. I’ve had two dreams come true – Pam (his wife) and now this. To think that Billy Donovan gave us this chance to be here for a moment like this … I’m still in shock.”
The next day, Cincinnati: The lines at the Indy airport were long. I drove to the Cincinnati airport for my flight to Orlando. I wore a Gator jacket. A UCLA fan tells me UF got lucky. I replied, “If Florida and UCLA played 10 times, UCLA would be lucky to win one game.” He looked at me with the most deflated look I’ve ever seen. He replies, “You’re right, but you won’t win two in a row because Noah, Horford and Brewer are all gone to the NBA.
The aftermath: The Oh-Fours had an agreement that if one of them left for the pros, they all would go. If one wanted to stay, they all stayed. Corey Brewer, the one who had the least, wanted to stay and that settled it for everybody.
I’ve written about sports for most of my life. I’ve covered Super Bowls, World Series, Ali heavyweight title fights, interviewed Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Vince Lombardi, Bear Bryant and John Wooden.
None of those things tops the 2006 basketball national title run by the Gators.
SATURDAY’S FINAL FOUR GAMES
I’ve got Buddy Hield going into a shooting coma and throwing in unconscious jumpers from 30 feet on in from opening bell to final whistle. Oklahoma gives Lon Kruger his chance to win a national title, but unfortunately, North Carolina stands in the way. The Tar Heels get an NCAA title before going on probation sometime in April.
UF SPRING SPORTS THIS WEEKEND
Softball: The top-ranked Gators (33-1, 8-1 SEC) renew their bitter rivalry with 7th-ranked Alabama (29-6, 3-3) coming to town for a 3-game series starting at 6 p.m. It’s Alumnae Weekend and one of the highlights will be the annual Alumnae Game following Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. Aleshia Ocasio (12-1), who gets the Friday start, ranks #1 nationally with an 0.36 ERA while Saturday starter Delanie Gourley (10-0) ranks third at 0.78. The Gators have the top team ERA in the country (0.78) and rank second in fielding (.984).
Baseball: The nation’s most watched and anticipated series of the still young season will take place at McKethan Stadium when the #2 Gators (24-3, 4-2 SEC) play host to #1 Texas A&M (22-3, 4-2 SEC). Logan Shore (5-0, 2.89 ERA) will again get the Friday night start, but Kevin O’Sullivan has shuffled the rotation for the remainder of the weekend, electing to send Alex Faedo (5-0, 2.70) against the Aggies on Saturday with lefty A.J. Puk (1-2, 3.49 ERA) getting the Sunday start. The Aggies have beaten the Gators nine out of 11 times the two teams have faced each other.
Lacrosse: The Gators (10-1, 1-0 Big East), who are ranked #2 nationally, play host to Temple (8-2, 0-0 Big East) in a Big East matchup at Donald Dizney Stadium Saturday at 1 p.m.
Gymnastics: The quest for a fourth straight NCAA championship begins Saturday when the #2 Gators take the floor as the top seed in the Minneapolis Regional. Senior Bridget Sloan is ranked #1 nationally in all-around, #3 on bars, #4 on floor and tied for #7 on the balance beam.
Women’s Tennis: The 6th-ranked Gators (13-2, 8-0 SEC) got the weekend off to a great start Thursday with a dominant, 6-1, win over #15 LSU at the Ring Tennis Center. Next up for the Gators is #25 Texas A&M Saturday at 1 p.m. The Gators have are on an 8-game winning streak and are 9-0 at home this season.
Men’s Golf: The 7th-ranked Gators will be participating in the Mason Rudolph Championships this weekend in Franklin, Tennessee.
Women’s Golf: The 8th-ranked Gators start play today in the Clemson Invitational in Sunset, South Carolina. The Gators have won their last three tournaments.
Men’s Tennis: The only action for the 11th-ranked Gators (11-4, 6-1 SEC) this weekend is this afternoon when #43 Vanderbilt comes to town for a 5 p.m. match. The Gators have won their last five matches and are 7-0 at home this season.
NCAA APOLOGIZES TO SOUTH CAROLINA
The NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, apologized to South Carolina Thursday for sending out a text on Selection Sunday that told the Gamecocks they had been invited to play in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Ten minutes later when the brackets were announced, South Carolina was left out.
The NCAA claims it was a clerical error and vice president of the men’s basketball championships Dan Gavitt issued a statement saying, “I take full responsibility for this clerical error and apologize to Coach (Frank) Martin, his staff and team, and the entire University of South Carolina community.”
Instead of South Carolina, the NCAA took in Vanderbilt, which lost badly in a First Four game to Wichita State. South Carolina won 24 regular season games and beat Vandy head-to-head. If the Commodores were in, the Gamecocks should have been also.
It is probably small consolation to South Carolina that the NCAA apologized but that’s the best the Gamecocks are going to get.
Other than UConn I don’t know who’s in the women’s Final Four. Does it matter? UConn will win twice by a combined 50 or more points. Bet the farm on it.
Although I believe North Carolina has too much talent to lose this weekend, I’ll be very pleased if Lon Kruger finally gets a national title and if Buddy Hield plays lights out. Buddy Hield is the most fun player to watch playing college basketball since Joakim Noah.
Jim Boeheim says he’s miffed that people would call him a cheater. Well, yeah, Jim. That’s what people call buddies of World Wide Wes. For all of you who are un-informed, Boeheim has had this pipeline from Philadelphia and Team Final AAU. Team Final has direct links to World Wide.
Angry New England Patriots fans plan to boycott the first round of the NFL Draft because they are angry with Roger Goodell. I’m sure Roger is losing sleep. Do you think the draft will go on? Huge dose of sarcasm there.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Who do you have winning the NCAA semifinal games Saturday.
MUSIC FOR TODAY
The music for my road to the 2006 Final Four was Talking Heads. I had the lucky green sweater and Talking Heads to see the Gators through. It couldn’t have happened without them. The music today is the “Stop Making Sense” CD that features “Burning Down the House” which was the required last song I played before I got out of the car before each game.