COUNTDOWN: Back For One More Title Run

"We back! We all back!" Twelve thousand or so in the O'Connell Center and many thousands more throughout Gator Nation stood and cheered when Florida's Joakim Noah made that proclamation at the Gators' national championship celebration just four days after the biggest basketball win in school history.

(Ninth in a series of ten stories)

My reaction was more like, "We'll see".

I didn't doubt for a moment that they meant it, but you have to keep history in mind. Last year, Sean May made a similar pledge at North Carolina's on-campus event, but he ended up in the NBA. It seems every year a stud from the national champs promises to be back only to find the lure and the riches of the NBA too much to turn down, but not these guys.

Joakim Noah might well have been the number one pick in the entire draft had he ended his college career with the stirring performances he gave throughout the NCAA Tournament. Al Horford was a certain lottery pick and might have cracked the top ten. Corey Brewer had the least certainty assigned to his draft status, but virtually everyone saw him going in the top 20 or so picks.

Yet instead of getting ready to visit New York and begin making money playing ball, Florida's sophomore trio instead will try and become the first team to repeat as NCAA champs since the 1993 Duke Blue Devils and only the second team to do it since the UCLA dynasty.

A Year of Incredible Improvement

Each of these guys took their game a long way this season in going from a team that was an NCAA bubble squad in November to the best in the land six months later. First to generate NBA talk was Horford who has the most advanced physique of the three. He averaged 5.6 points and 6.5 rebounds as a freshman, but posted three double-doubles in the first ten games of the season. Each game "Big Al" would produce either on the scoreboard, the backboard or defensively. Soon he was listed as the number-eight prospect for the upcoming draft and people began talking.

Then Corey Brewer produces a triple-double --- the first in UF history --- and folks start looking at him. Oh, he lacks the ideal NBA body and jump shot, but his athleticism is a rare gift.

But by the end of the year, the talk was about Joakim Noah. Florida's one-man United Nations was capturing everyone's attention. After an illness-plagued freshman season, Noah showed he was a legit threat right away, scoring 27 points in the first two games. Through 16 games he was averaging 12 points and 5.8 rebounds. But that was just the beginning. Noah scored 26 against Kentucky and the nation was wowed. He had 20 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and five steals in a home loss to Tennessee which set the stage for his incredible stretch run.

Beginning with the Georgia game, Noah went nuts --- 37 points against the Bulldogs are the most for any player in the Donovan era. He followed that with a double-double at Kentucky and another in the SEC Tournament win over a very good LSU team. Come NCAA Tournament time, Noah was the best player in the country, period. He averaged 16.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.8 blocks and 3.2 assists. He made 55 percent of his field goals and 84 percent at the line while playing 32 minutes a game.

He was far and away the hottest player in the land and every NBA draft projection listed him as a certain top five and potential number one pick.

Instead he and his teammates are all coming back for very clear reasons.

THEY LOVE IT: First and foremost all three of these guys love playing college basketball. The love going to class, they love their teammates, coaches and the Rowdy Reptiles.

FAMILY SUPPORT: Yannick Noah is a millionaire and wants his son to enjoy his youth. His mom, Cecilia is adamant about her son getting his degree. Tito Horford made plenty of money in his pro career, too. And he has said that he wants his son to enjoy this period of his life, knowing the NBA is not going anywhere. Corey Brewer's family is a loving, close knit group that also wants to see him earn that diploma. There no better validation of the decision to stay in school than having the complete support of the people you love.

TAUREAN GREEN: While the Gators other three sophomores have the greater "Pro-tential," Taurean is the "Ringo" in this Fab Four. I think it would have killed these guys to leave Taurean behind so soon after such a great moment. These guys came in together and they seem determined to go out the same way.

The Gator Basketball team confounded the experts this season, but not as much as Noah, Horford and Brewer did afterwards. That's why their return to college basketball is the number two story of the year.

I'm guessing you know what #1 is going to be.

Feedback always welcome: Vettel@gatorcountry.com


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