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November 2, 2006
The road to repeat will be tough for Florida
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The king of college basketball has made himself the master of metaphors.
Florida coach Billy Donovan plans to use every motivational ploy he can think of as he tries to lead the Gators to a second consecutive NCAA championship.
"The perception is we're still on the mountaintop," Donovan said. "We're not. In reality, we're at the bottom of the mountain with the rest of the country."
Winning one title can prove as tough as scaling Mt. Rainier.
The second time around, it seems more like Everest.
No national champion has repeated since the 1992 Duke squad that featured Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley. The last five national champions haven't even reached a regional final the following year.
"It doesn't surprise me," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It's very difficult to win the national championship because it's a one-and-done deal. People have to be healthy. Kids who are 19 to 22-23 have to be consistent. It's very difficult."
It just might be the most difficult task in major team sports.
The NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and major college football all have seen teams win back-to-back titles since the last NCAA Tournament repeat champion.
In nearly all those other sports, a defending national champion returns most of its nucleus the following year. That doesn't happen in college basketball, where stars of national championship teams often decide to turn pro almost as soon as they've cut down the nets.
Just consider the fate of North Carolina, which won the national title two years ago.
Final Four hero Sean May, point guard Raymond Felton, swingman Rashad McCants and super sub Marvin Williams all entered the NBA Draft before using up all their eligibility. The Tar Heels were forced to defend their crown with a team full of freshmen.
Florida won't have to face that dilemma.
The Gators appear better equipped for a repeat than any national champion since that Duke team of the early 1990s. Florida returns all five starters from a team that won each of its six NCAA Tournament games last year by an average margin of 16 points.
Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer decided to stay in school even though all of them could have been drafted in the first round. Noah, the most outstanding player in the Final Four, likely would have been the top overall pick.
No wonder the Gators are a near-unanimous pick to win it all again.
"Having vets really takes a lot of heat off the head coach," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, an assistant coach on that senior-laden 1992 Duke team. "They helped Coach K run the team, and I have to believe Billy (Donovan) has that in Joakim Noah, Al Horford and others."
Donovan doesn't want his players to hear that.
"Everything you're being fed is poison," Donovan said he told his team. "If you take it and swallow everything people are giving you, you'll die and this team will die."
Perhaps nobody understands Donovan's situation quite as well as Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt.
Summitt has won six national championships at Tennessee, including three in a row from 1996-98. She has experienced the demands that face all defending national champions.
"Billy's been around the game, and I'm sure he knows what to expect," Summitt said. "But there's knowing what to expect, and then you've got to live it."
Even when a national champion returns most of its players, complacency often prevents a repeat. Teams begin to look ahead or look back instead of focusing on the here and now.
Summitt still remembers talking to Chamique Holdsclaw before the Lady Vols' first practice of the1998-99 season. At the time, Holdsclaw was a senior who already had played on three consecutive national championship teams.
"Coach, I just can't wait," Holdsclaw said.
"You can't wait (for practice)?" Summit asked.
"I just can't wait for the tournament,'' Holdsclaw replied.
That conversation foreshadowed a season in which Tennessee failed to win a fourth consecutive title.
"They just didn't seem to have that same motivation," Summitt said. "The players who'd been involved in two or three championships just didn't have that edge and drive about them."
Donovan has tried to make sure his team doesn't lose that edge.
He has brought in motivational speakers to talk to his team. He has utilized his own powers of persuasion. He offers pointed reminders whenever he notices a player slacking.
"He's always talking about how we just want to be the best team we can become," Florida guard Lee Humphrey said. "We have a chance to be a really good team and have a chance to really put our mark on college basketball and basketball at the University of Florida. We have a great opportunity in front of us."
Donovan doesn't want anything get in the way of that opportunity.
He has emphasized team unity to make sure Noah's emergence as one of the game's top personalities doesn't breed any jealousy or resentment.
The players say they have accepted their roles while adjusting to the extra attention that follows them wherever they go. The Gators have vowed not to rest on their laurels.
"They don't understand complacency," Donovan said. "I don't know if they understand what the word complacency means."
Then again, just about every defending national champion makes a similar pledge at the start of the season. Living up to that promise often proves impossible.
"You've got to keep that level of hunger and intensity that sometimes is hard to duplicate," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, who won a national title in 1997-98 and reached a regional final the following year. "Then you have others who are probably going to play you a little harder and probably raise their level of play when they play against you."
Indeed, Summitt said she sometimes didn't bother showing her defending national championship teams certain game tapes of upcoming opponents. She knew those teams would play a much better brand of basketball once they faced Tennessee.
SEC teams traditionally have circled the Kentucky game on their schedule before every season. They now will look forward to Florida showdowns with an equal amount of anticipation.
The Gators believe they're ready for the challenge.
"Every game is going to be a war," Horford said. "Our opponents better bring their best because we are going to bring our best every game."
Of course, a defending champion in just about every other sport also has to deal with an opponent's best effort each game.
The difference is that an NBA champion can make it through the occasional valley because the strongest team usually prevails in a best-of-seven postseason series. The one-and-done nature of the NCAA Tournament doesn't afford that opportunity.
Only the NFL has a similar sudden-death format to its postseason, but top pro football teams at least can capitalize on home-field advantage in conference playoff games. College basketball teams must win six consecutive games against upset-minded teams at neutral sites where the crowds often cheer for the underdog.
"I really believe if you'd started the tournament all over again (last year) after we'd won it, there would be a different winner standing," Donovan said. "To me, the NCAA Tournament never really crowns the best or most talented team in the country. It's a one-game tournament in which anything can happen."
It instead rewards the hottest and luckiest team in the country.
Even that 1992 Duke team won only after Laettner made a miraculous buzzer-beater to knock out Kentucky in a classic regional final. Hurley sank six 3-pointers in an 81-78 semifinal victory over Indiana.
"We were fortunate," Krzyzewski said. "We're a Laettner shot away from not doing it, or Bobby Hurley's threes against Indiana in the semis. A lot of times it's just one player or one shot that puts you in position."
One player or one shot also can knock you out of position.
Miles Simon is the biggest reason Kentucky didn't win three consecutive titles from 1996-98. Simon scored 30 points as Arizona defeated Kentucky 84-79 in a 1997 NCAA championship game that went into overtime.
Duke's hopes of repeating in 2002 vanished when Jason Williams missed a free throw with four seconds remaining in a 74-73 South Region semifinal loss to Indiana. Defending national champion UCLA lost 43-41 to Princeton in the first round after Gabe Lewullis made a tiebreaking back-door layup with 3.9 seconds remaining.
The increase in parity and the rise of mid-major programs such as 2006 Cinderella story George Mason only make it tougher for any team to survive the grind of March Madness two consecutive years.
"There were no George Masons back then," Brey said of the era in which Duke won back-to-back titles. "There are more good players, especially guards. There are more people that can bite you."
The Gators plan to bite back.
Donovan believes he has the special kind of team that can put aside the distractions that come with defending a national title.
He believes a championship team must be competitive, unselfish, intelligent, united and interested in team goals above any individual honors. Donovan says his players have all those ingredients.
"They love winning," Donovan said. "They love trying to get better. They love improving. They love challenges. It's a little different mind-set with these guys. They understand what they're up against. They understand the attention, the distractions and all the other things.
"I want them to have fun. I want them to enjoy themselves. They had fun playing together last year. I want them to have fun playing together this year. I don't want anybody to try to rob them of their enjoyment of why they came back."
If the Gators take that approach all season, they once again may have plenty of fun in March.