They were going to the NBA. Everybody in what had only moments before been one hopping joint knew it. Horford, Noah, Brewer. Three-fifths of the starting lineup that had brought Florida its first NCAA basketball championship in school history just four nights before huddled together on the podium and they were about to say good-bye. The whole front line, gone just like that. It just didn't seem fair. Wasn't it only yesterday --- actually six years ago --- that Mike Miller and Donnell Harvey left far too early, taking with them the hopes of a national championship for 2001?
The thought of the entire front line saying good-bye literally sucked the life out of the crowd which stood limply.
But before Horford could say another word, Noah grabbed the microphone from Horford with a "whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" He took a moment to survey the crowd and then he asked, "What do you guys want us to do?"
A ray of hope!
The crowd roared and shouts of "Two more years! Two more years!" broke out.
The seven-foot sophomore with the trademark pony-tail, wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt that seemed to hang almost to his knees, grinned impishly. Brewer's face beamed but Corey Brewer smiles even when he gets hammered to the floor by LSU's sumo-wrestler turned power forward, Big Baby Davis. Horford, who smiles on the basketball court about as often as Steve Spurrier calls a running play on third and 10, allowed a little grin to break across his face. They had us and they knew it.
"Well, we're back, baby!" shouted Noah as the O-Dome crowd, there to celebrate the NCAA title, let loose a collective scream that seemed loud enough to blow the roof off the joint.
They played us for suckers and they got us good, but since Noah, Horford and Brewer are coming back for another magic carpet ride that could result in a second straight NCAA title, the entire Gator Nation is in a most forgiving mood tonight.
The decision didn't necessarily catch Billy Donovan by surprise. After Monday night's win over UCLA he said that he expected all four of his Oh-Fours, the sophomore class that makes up 80 percent of the starting lineup, would be back for their junior years. He said it without reservation even though he knew that Joakim Noah's probable draft stock moved up to lottery level and that Horford wasn't all that far behind. Brewer's stock improved the last two weeks, too, and though not projected as high as Noah or Horford, he could have been a surefire first rounder, too.
For some kids, just getting to the NBA is the realization of the dream. Donovan says that with Brewer, Horford and Noah, just getting there isn't good enough. They want to play at a high level from the start and they realize that to do that, they would be better served to spend another year playing college basketball.
"These guys are not worried about that [NBA draft]," said Donovan. "They would love to play in the NBA and be impact players but with them it's not about just about getting to the NBA, it's about becoming the best they can become as players. I think there is a great level of security they have within themselves about who they are."
So instead of going at the first talk that they're hot commodities, the three of them are staying, in part because they're having the time of their lives playing college basketball. They love being at the University of Florida and they love the way the Gator Nation has embraced them.
Noah, Horford and Brewer came by Donovan's office Friday afternoon to let him know they were going to stay one more year.
"Taurean was doing some extra work so the three of them kind of came over together and we talked and they said that's what they want to do," said Donovan. "They really wanted to stay together, they really wanted to play and they're having a great time. They're maybe different than most kids. It's not about them. It's never been about them and I think that's part of what's made them a special group of kids is their mindset. They're having fun, they're kids and they're enjoying it. Right now I'm happy that they have peace of mind and peace of heart and they feel good about being back here."
Donovan says he didn't try to influence them one way or the other but once they said they would be back, he did encourage them to announce it at the O-Dome celebration that would be televised on Fox Sports Network and Sun Sports.
"I told I think it would be great if that's what they want to do if they came out public with it so everybody knows," said Donovan. "No more questions about it or talk about it. It's over and done with and this is where they're at."
How they went about announcing it to the Gator Nation was totally their own doing.
"I said to those guys, we're doing a thing now and I'm probably going to be asked some questions beforehand and/or after and I said what I would like to do is say something," said Donovan. "They were like, 'Yeah, yeah Coach, that would be great.' Now the whole thing they did I didn't know. I just told them I was going to paint a picture and say I don't know what those guys' futures were."
So they suckered the crowd, showing a real flair for the dramatic.
"They choreographed all that," said Donovan. "I had nothing to do with that."
And with the announcement that they will be back, the Gators will enter the 2006-2007 season as favorites to repeat as NCAA champions. Only Adrian Moss will be graduating and the starting five of Noah, Horford, Brewer, Green and Lee Humphrey along with key reserves Chris Richard, David Huertas and Walter Hodge will be strengthened by a recruiting class that is one of the best in the country.
"We'll have to deal with being ranked one, two or three in the country," said Donovan, who added there will be other challenges besides a high ranking. "These are the kids I would love to deal with those challenges with."
CELEBRATION TIDBITS: Early in the celebration, a tarp was yanked off the floor revealing the floor from the RCA Dome on which the Gators won the NCAA championship in Indianapolis. Athletic Director Jeremy Foley sprung that surprise on Donovan, the team and the crowd. He said afterward that the winning team has the option to buy the floor that they won the championship on every year … Dr. Bernie Machen, UF's president, told the crowd "The University of Florida is in Gainesville but the Gator Nation is everywhere." … Frank Weeks of Siemens presented the Gators with the Siemens Trophy, the Waterford Crystal trophy that is given to the final number one team in the nation. Weeks mentioned that CBS announcer Billy Packer said that Florida's performance in the championship game "was one of the greatest performances he's seen in his 33 years of broadcasting." … Interviewed on stage during the celebration, Noah said, "We've been partying for five days and we're not done yet." … Asked how many jump shots he took Friday, Humphrey grinned sheepishly and said, "Zero!"