10 years after, Florida players fondly recall back-to-back championships
Villanova became the most recent defending NCAA men’s basketball champion to fail in its bid to go back-to-back, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed bowing out in the second round Saturday with a 65-62 loss to 8-seed Wisconsin.
The Wildcats’ early exit is the latest for a reigning champ hoping to double down, as each of the past 10 national title winners has failed to advance past the Sweet 16, including four who didn’t qualify for the next Dance.
But a decade ago this month, before they wound up NIT-bound in 2008, Florida did something only one other team has done since the UCLA dynasty of the 1960s and ‘70s: The Gators actually repeated as champs.
This is the story of how they did it.
Over the course of the 2006 and 2007 NCAA tournaments, Florida went 12-0, outscoring its dozen opponents by an average of 15 points per game, with only four wins coming by single digits, and one of those — a 57-53 victory over Georgetown in the 2006 Sweet 16 — coming by fewer than seven points.
However, for practical purposes, the Gators’ two-year run of dominance began on the recruiting trail in 2003 and 2004, when head coach Billy Donovan assembled the program’s most impressive freshman class to date, bringing Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green into the mix for the ‘04 season.
At the time, Florida was less than a full four-year class removed from the school’s best season, having finished runner-up to Michigan State in 2000 in the program’s second Final Four appearance (the first came in 1994). And though the team had failed to capitalize on that momentum in subsequent years, with opening-weekend losses to inferior opponents in each of the next three tournaments, the expectation was that the new crop might be able to put the program back in the spotlight.
“As a player, you think every team you’re on has the potential to do something special, but that’s hardly ever the reality,” former Gators forward Chris Richard said. “But when they came in I definitely saw something different in them that I knew we needed.
“They brought in a spark and a competitive edge that I felt like we already had, but they helped take it to the next level,” Richard continued. “As soon as those guys came in, they made an instant bond and it was like the ‘04s versus the world on the first day. So them coming in with that mindset and that attitude, it helped everyone, and in the long run it turned out to be the key to our success.”
The early returns left plenty to be desired, though, as Florida’s super-freshmen failed to make the impact some anticipated during the 2004-05 season.
The Gators, at that time, were still David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh’s team, and though Florida did win the SEC tournament and entered the NCAA tournament as a 4-seed, it was dealt yet another second-round exit in 2005, this time at the hands of 5-seed Villanova.
“Before we went to Florida, people were making a big deal out of it, like, ‘Why are you going to Florida? They always get pushed out the first or second round,’” Brewer said. “So when I got there our freshman year, and we lose in the second round, it’s like, ‘Dang, this is tough.’
“Then the guys declared for the draft — Anthony, Matt — and D-Lee was a senior, so it’s like, ‘This is our team now. What are we going to do?’” continued Brewer, now with the Los Angeles Lakers. “And we said, ‘We’re going to win a championship.’”
The following season, Florida’s fate was almost solely in the hands of its now-sophomore stars, who were flanked by Richard, fellow junior Lee Humphrey and incoming freshman Walter Hodge, and after a 17-0 start that included wins over top-20 teams in Wake Forest and Syracuse, the young Gators found themselves ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Their standing was later called into question, however, during a 5-6 run in conference play that drew the attention — and criticism — of some past Florida stars.
“Udonis Haslem reached out to Coach Donovan,” Richard said. “We had gone on a losing streak, and I remember him calling us, basically going in on us and letting us know how embarrassing we were to the program. And Udonis Haslem is one of the greatest players to ever play for Florida, in my opinion, so anytime he speaks, even at the NBA level, everybody shuts up and listens.”
A second consecutive SEC tournament championship followed, and Florida entered the NCAA tournament as a 3-seed. After coasting to a first-round win over South Alabama, the Gators got a break in the form of Milwaukee’s win over 6-seed Oklahoma, resulting in UF’s second consecutive matchup with a double-digit seed.
“On paper, with an 11-seed versus a 3-seed, you would expect the 3-seed to win, but in a situation where you already had the 11-seed upset the 6-seed, they’re rolling, they’ve got the momentum, they can get hot, and that’s when it can get scary,” Richard said. “That’s how Cinderella stories get made.”
Fortunately, there were no surprises, and after eliminating Milwaukee and eking past Georgetown — which also did Florida a favor by knocking out 2-seed Ohio State — all that stood between Florida and the Final Four was its old foe Villanova.
“We definitely remembered what had happened to us (the year before),” Richard said. “We had this stigma about ourselves that we were a soft team and that as long as you played hard and punched us in the mouth that you would be OK. But we were a totally different team than we were in the past, and a lot of teams found that out the hard way.”
So, too, did the Randy Foye- and Kyle Lowry-led Wildcats, who played from behind virtually the entire game and spent most of the second half trailing by double digits in a 75-62 loss.
“It’s not like you’re relieved, because you want to win the whole thing, but you still accomplished one of your goals,” Green said of reaching the Final Four. “And looking back, it’s an awesome feeling — a once in a lifetime feeling.”
Or, in Florida’s case, a twice-in-a-lifetime feeling.
Following the win over top-seeded ‘Nova, Florida played yet another 11-seed in George Mason in the national semifinal in Indianapolis — the Gators, by their own admission, got about as friendly a draw as a team could hope for — and advanced to the championship game with a 73-58 win over the Patriots.
“We were playing so well, man, we felt like whoever you put in front of us, we were going to kick their butts,” said Brewer, who had 19 points in the win. “We really didn’t care who we played. Everybody was like, ‘Y’all got lucky you got to play George Mason,’ but if we would have played against Connecticut, we would have kicked their butts too. We didn’t care.”
Nor did they give much thought to the pedigree of UCLA, their opponent in the national championship game, and the result was a convincing 73-57 win.
“It’s probably the most amazing feeling in the world,” Brewer said of the celebration. “You did something you dreamed about as a kid, and you reached a goal. It’s the pinnacle. Before the season, every team in NCAA is sitting in their locker room thinking their goal is to win a championship, and to actually win it? That’s everything.”
At that point, the only question was whether Florida’s stable of stars would be back to defend their title, but that, too, was an easy decision — even if it wasn’t for the reason you might think.
“Joakim, Al and Corey, they could have easily taken the money,” said Green, who currently plays for Bnei Herzliya in the Israeli Premier League. “But that’s just how our team was. We were unselfish and we loved to play together.”
“We had a genuine love and a genuine bond for each other, so we weren’t even really thinking about making history,” Richard added. “We were more concerned about coming together one last time as brothers and seeing how far we could go. We felt like we had the formula to win. So we felt like if we came together one last time, we might be able to do something special, and we did.”
Of course, having the tools to win a second consecutive championship and actually doing it are different — as every other defending champ for the past 40 years except the 1992 Duke team can attest — and as the 2006-07 title defense kicked off, the Gators felt the distinct pressure that comes with having a target on your back.
“It was completely different because we were getting everybody’s best shot, from preseason exhibition games on,” Green said. “It was completely different from that first championship run. So you just played with more of an edge, and I think we did a good job of sticking together, because there were a lot of distractions.”
Still, there was no pressure quite like the pressure Florida put on itself.
“I felt like once we won a championship and once we proved we were a team who could compete with anybody, we put expectations on ourselves,” Richard said. “And at that point, anything other than a championship was unacceptable for us. We knew we had the same team and we felt like if we could do the same things, we could get back, so for us, we just needed to take care of business.”
And for most of the season, they did, as the Gators ran out to a 24-2 start and never fell out of the top 10 in the polls. But then a 2-3 slide heading into the SEC tournament raised questions about whether Florida actually had the stamina to repeat.
“I think in those three games we just kind of flatlined a little bit,” Green said. “The pressure and the media and all this stuff — I think it just got to us. But we did a good job refocusing for the tournament, because that was always our goal, to win a championship.
“The thing that was special with our team was that we embraced it,” Green added of shifting his attention to the postseason. “We loved the tournament time of the year and we would always put on the board, ‘Nine games.’ We wanted to go 9-0 — win our conference tournament, three games, then go to the NCAA tournament and win six. That was always our goal and we relished it.”
Any questions about Florida’s mettle were answered, however, during a three-game sweep through the conference tournament that saw the Gators win by margins of 17, 21 and 21. And as a 1-seed, Florida felt like the tournament was theirs for the taking.
“I don’t think we ever had that kind of mentality,” Richard said when asked if he felt more pressure not to lose as a 1-seed than as a 3. “Our mentality was, ‘We’re not losing, period.’ We did everything we could to win every game, because once we got a taste of what that championship run felt like, it was like an addiction to us. We had to do whatever we needed to do to get back to that hit.”
Much like the 2006 tourney, Florida, again, coasted through its region, with convincing wins over Jackson State, Purdue, Butler and Oregon to set up a rematch with UCLA, this time in the national semifinal in Atlanta. Except unlike 2006, when the specter of the Bruins’ past hung over the game, this time the Gators felt they had the upper hand before the ball was even tipped.
“We had absolutely no concern for UCLA at all,” Richard said. “Before we actually played, the night before, we had a banquet dinner that all of the final four teams go to, and you could say we had a mini-confrontation with UCLA. It didn’t get too far out of hand, but once we got into what we got into at that banquet, we knew that we had them.
“It was almost like the Mike Tyson fight when he’s standing across the ring, staring into his opponent’s eyes, and they’re just shaking, they can’t look at him,” Richard continued. “We felt like we had UCLA like that.”
Another double-digit victory over the Bruins then set Florida up for a championship face-off against Ohio State — whom the Gators had beaten by 26 in the regular season. Still, Donovan made it a point to keep his guys from feeling overconfident.
“We played everybody in the SEC east twice, so if you do that enough, you get used to playing the same team more than one time,” Richard said. “So once the tournament comes, you understand that you have to bring your all. Because even though you beat a team once or twice, that doesn’t mean they can’t beat you the next time.”
“You can’t think about what happened in the regular season,” Green added. “We knew they were a good team, and they were just getting Greg Oden back when we first played them, and now he had a few games under his belt and he was in a good rhythm. So we knew it was going to be tough, and we didn’t even really think about beating them (in December) because it didn’t really matter.”
Sure enough, Oden pulled his weight, posting 25 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks, and Mike Conley added 20 points, six assists and four steals, but it wasn’t enough as — spoiler alert — Florida won 84-75 thanks in part to a 10-of-18 shooting night from 3.
“I don’t want to say easy, but the way we were playing, it was fun,” Brewer said of the team’s back-to-back titles. “We were enjoying basketball, and that’s what basketball is all about.”
There’s a case to be made that Florida would have become just the second school to three-peat had its stars returned for their respective senior seasons, especially considering the freshman additions of Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons and the continuing development of Marreese Speights, who was set to take over for Richard in the middle.
But according to the players, that run at history was never on the table.
“We had to get up out of there,” Brewer said with a laugh, recalling his decision to leave for the NBA. “It was too much fun, but we couldn’t risk it again. You never know what could happen; somebody could get hurt. But we had the time of our lives.”
“We talked about how crazy it would be if we could do it,” Green added of a potential third championship, “but when you’re hot, you’re hot.”
The former Gators can appreciate how much they each benefited from staying in school as long as they did, giving themselves the chance to develop together on the floor.
“Nowadays, everybody is putting pressure on the kids to go score a bunch of points and go right to the NBA, but for us we came to get better,” Brewer said. “And each year, each one of us got better, as basketball players and also as people. We grew as people and as friends and it helped us on the court. We never let anything get to us.
“The hardest thing in basketball is staying together when adversity hits,” Brewer continued, “and for us, adversity never really hit, because we’d look at each other like, ‘Come on, you know we’re better than this.’”
One might think there’s a lesson to be learned from Florida’s unselfish approach, but ultimately, Brewer says, the lure of the NBA has been the biggest factor preventing other teams from repeating in the years since Florida became the last to accomplish the feat.
“With the one-and-done thing, a lot of teams have guys leaving, but it’s just tough to win in the NCAA tournament, no matter what anyone says,” Brewer said. “Anyone can play their best game, so if you’re not on top of your game, you’re probably going to lose, and that’s what happened to Villanova. They weren’t on top of their game, and Wisconsin played really well.”
It remains to be seen who will be the last team standing when the current tournament draws to a close next month, and it’ll no doubt be a long road back to the top this time next season. But eventually someone else will join the elite group of programs that have gone back-to-back, and if Florida’s own experience counts for anything, it’ll be a title that gets sweeter with age.
“I don’t necessarily take it for granted, but sometimes I don’t always understand how big it truly was,” said Richard, who spent time with the Timberwolves and Bulls after leaving Gainesville. “I was in it, I had a good time, I enjoyed the win and I appreciated it. But even now, it still hasn’t really kicked in fully yet. So when I see what we did and I put it in perspective with what other teams are doing, that’s when I realize, ‘Man, we really did something special.’”