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November 7, 2006

Florida has back-to-back dreams

Preseason Top 25
Preseason All-Americans
The College Basketball Wire

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Rivals.com selected the top 25 storylines for the upcoming 2006-07 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 1 storyline focuses on Florida's attempt to become the first team to win two consecutive national titles in 15 years.

The giant targets can officially be placed on the backs of the Florida Gators.

The AP preseason poll was unveiled Monday, and as predicted the Gators were the heavy pick for No. 1. Florida received 63 of the 72 first-place votes. The Gators received 30 of the 31 first-place votes in the USA Today coaches' poll.

Heavy preseason favorites tend to emerge every couple years, but this comes with a different twist. Only one team has won back-to-back NCAA titles in the last 34 seasons Duke in 1991-92. That fact puts the Gators squarely in the national spotlight.

It appears Florida has the best chance of matching the feat since Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley played in Durham, N.C. Like the veteran-laden Blue Devils, Florida returns every starter and key contributor.

That includes a frontcourt trio that each turned down likely spots in the first round of the NBA Draft to stay in school, a move that prompted coach Billy Donovan to delay a hefty raise himself.

Center Joakim Noah, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 Final Four, had a chance to be the top overall pick. Power forward Al Horford, who coach Donovan has said repeatedly has the most pro potential of all his players, was pegged for the lottery. Versatile small forward Corey Brewer was projected to be taken later in the first round.

While none of future pros put up gaudy stats last season in the Gators' well-balanced system, they combined for some impressive production. Together they averaged 38.1 points, 19.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 4.5 blocks a game.

A look at the rest of the roster shows that the Gators have no glaring weaknesses.

Guards Taurean Green (13.3 ppg) and Lee Humphrey (10.9 ppg) give the Gators five double-digit scorers. Green is a solid ballhandler and Humphrey, a 3-point specialist, shot an SEC-high 46 percent (113 of 246) behind the arc last season.

Center Chris Richard (5.9 ppg) and combo guard Walter Hodge (3.8 ppg) are experienced reserves who provide depth.

With Noah, Horford, Brewer and Richard all standing 6-foot-8 or taller, the Gators have plenty of size to match up against big teams.

Brewer also gives them a lockdown defender on the perimeter. The lanky wing was selected co-SEC defensive player of the year and gave many of the league's top scorers problems.

Florida has added more weapons with the addition of a top-25 recruiting class. The four-man group is highlighted by athletic 6-10 power forward Marreese Speights and versatile 6-7 small forward Dan Werner, a solid 3-point threat.

Their difference maker, if needed, can be Noah. Few teams can match up with the 6-foot-11, 230-pounder who provides a huge defensive presence on the interior.

Of course, there are several factors that don't point in Florida's favor, mainly history.

Only two of the 33 national champions since 1973 have returned to the national title game, Duke in 1992 and Kentucky in 1997. The last five national champions haven't gone beyond the Sweet 16 the following season.

That Kentucky team fell to Arizona, the last national champions to bring back all their starters. Arizona went 30-5 the following season and lost in the Elite Eight.

The competition also appears to be getting tougher.

The SEC looks to have improved after sending six teams to the 2006 NCAA Tournament. LSU, which is coming off a Final Four run of its own, is ranked No. 7 in the AP poll and Alabama came in at No. 12.

Second-ranked North Carolina and No. 3 Kansas, which faces Florida in Las Vegas on Nov. 25, each have more talent and depth on their rosters than the Gators.

Then there's the growing list of mid-majors to worry about, many capable of ending someone's great season in the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament. A pair of Missouri Valley Conference teams - Bradley and Wichita State - did just that last season, and George Mason made a memorable and shocking run to the Final Four.

The days of sneaking up on opponents are over, too. The Gators began last season unranked and it took four consecutive wins in the SEC Tournament to lock up a favorable draw. They were awarded a No. 3 seed in the Jacksonville (Fla.) regional.

Now, top-ranked Florida will be the hunted, with each game providing an opportunity for a new opponent to beat the defending national champs.

But Donovan and his team can also be called lucky. They'll be the first national champions to play all their home games the following season on the court on which they won their title. The university purchased the hardwood from the Indianapolis Final Four for $70,000, a unique move that could perhaps be just the karma needed to counter the great odds they're facing.

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