With another March Madness one and done, all we as fans have left are shattered brackets and hopes for next year. Defense of a championship is an arduous task in any sport, especially in college basketball (the last team to win back to back tournaments were the 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils). That is why what the Florida Gators did this season is such an accomplishment. Though considered one of the favorites to win it all again, there were many doubters of Billy Donovan?s experienced Florida team coming into the tournament. But when you really think about it, the Gators should have been the clear-cut favorites to win from the outset.
Florida returned every starter from last year, including the 2006 Tournament MOP Joakim Noah who could have easily bolted for the NBA after his first championship last March. We all remember the inexperienced Gator team that came out of relatively nowhere to cut down the nets last year, but for this March Madness we saw a cohesive and veteran group reclaim what was so rightfully theirs.
The bottom line was this year?s Gators were stacked; All five starters averaged double figures in scoring and shared the ball with one another. Their roster was full of future NBA players and Billy Donovan, basketball?s new great young coach, paced the sidelines.
Is this Gators team one of the best ever? Probably not, but we as fans should not forget this team. In this age of players leaving early for the NBA, seldom do we find athletes willing to stay at school and do something special. Not to mention the amazing job the University of Florida athletic department has done this year. Championships in both football and basketball have truly made this the year of the Gator.
Regardless of the loss in the championship game to Florida, Greg Oden has officially arrived as the next basketball phenom for years to come. Odenmania has hit thanks to a stellar performance last Monday; If no one knew who Greg Oden was before, they surely do now. He reminds me of a young David Robinson (although he looks older than the retired Admiral does currently), with relentless interior defense, registering four blocks in the championship game. He was also able to put up 25 points on 10-15 shooting against Florida?s vaunted post defenders including Al Horford, who many believe to be NBA ready right now. Oden could benefit from another year in college, as could the majority of NBA prospects, but there is no way he will stay. He is ready to take his place, along with Kevin Durant, as the next ?it? player in association, and as a fan, I could not be more excited. Let?s see how the rest of the crop of collegiate superstars fared throughout the madness:
The lanky and versatile forward only helped his case as an NBA prospect with strong performances throughout March, including an MOP award in the championship game. Nicknamed the ?Drunken Dribbler? for his erratic yet elusive style of play, Brewer has cemented himself the best on ball defenders in college basketball this season. He has exceptional quickness for a 6?8? forward, and can tenaciously defend anyone on the court. He even defended the 7-foot Oden for a stretch in the title game, blocking the immense center at one point. Drawing comparisons to the ?Plastic Man? Stacy Augmon, Brewer has NBA scouts drooling over his versatility and defensive prowess. Similar to his teammate Joakim Noah, Brewer has the speed and quickness of guard in a forward?s body with extremely long arms. Where it seems Horford and Noah may get most of the hype, Brewer can be better than his teammates at the next level. He should be terrorizing opposing scorers in NBA for years to come.
The Georgetown Giant had quite a month of March, leading his Hoyas to the Final Four. Like Oden, the 7?2? center is an imposing, defensive force and space-eater on the inside. He should be a top-10 draft pick if he elects to leave, as would his teammate Jeff Green. However Hibbert has the edge now after showcasing his physical gifts all tournament long. In the semifinal game against Ohio State, Hibbert battled Greg Oden valiantly, regardless of his foul trouble. Hibbert, who has been criticized by scouts for his lack of offensive game, but posted a 19 point showing against Oden and kept Georgetown close while Jeff Green seemed frustrated throughout the game. Hibbert also put up double-doubles in four of Georgetown?s final five tournament games. His footwork needs improvement, but Hibbert possesses soft hands and a knack for finding teammates open. Most importantly, he is a physical giant; a legitimate center which is rare these to find these days.
Just like Corey Brewer, the buzz around Al Horford seemed to take the backseat to teammate Joakim Noah in the past year. After a strong showing in the title game, Horford has shown that he is one of main reasons why the Gators repeated. While Noah was the finesse player that seemingly led the Gators all year, Horford was the glue that held this veteran group together, serving as the tough, intimidating leader that championship teams need. And credit much of Noah?s success all year to the presence of Horford on the inside. Teams had to pick their poison against Florida, because it is almost impossible to contain both Horford and Noah. Big Al finally got the credit he deserves in the title game. Where Noah faltered (8 points on 1-3 shooting), Horford lead Florida, posting 18 points and 12 rebounds.
Noah surely hurt his stock in the draft by his performance in the tournament. Noah may be an impressive energy player with great versatility, but we were all reminded of his inability to shoot and create his own shots this march. Nothing should be taken away from Noah?s achievements this year, but I see Brewer and Horford succeeding at the next level more so than Joakim.
Overall, this season of college basketball was one of the most enjoyable to date. We saw a new generation of superstars emerge with the successes of Oden, Kevin Durant and others. But when it came time to cut down the nets in Atlanta, it was the veteran team that was still standing. Many of Florida?s players from last year could be on an NBA team this year, but they elected to do something special. No one can take that away from them, and we as fans should remember this Gator team, because we may not see another like them again.