Billy Donovan’s 2006 Florida basketball team was young, and the program, after a run to the NCAA final in 2000 had been mostly quiet in March, especially with early exits in recent years.
Unbeknownst to the casual observer though, Donovan was sitting on tremendous talent, with future NBA starters Joakim Noah and Al Horford occupying the paint. Corey Brewer at forward is also playing at the next level today and a solid backcourt was led by Tauren Green and Lee Humphrey. This group could reasonably hope to have a good year in 2006 and then see 2007, when they would all be back, as their year to go for it.
There was nothing in the regular season to alter that perception, for better or for worse. Florida had solid highs, such as consecutive wins over Wake Forest and Syracuse in Madison Square Garden that pulled them out of the mass of unranked teams and into the AP poll at #15 just prior to Thanksgiving.
The Gators kept on winning against a mostly non-descript schedule and rose in the polls via attrition, as they got climbed as high as 16-0 and #2 in the nation in mid-January, fulfilling the hopes of all those who saw their potential. Then a skid came where they split their next 12 games and lost at home to #11 Tennessee, the only ranked team they would play in a bad year for SEC basketball. The skid confirmed the worst fears all of those who saw the pitfalls. Donovan was able to get his team to close on a strong note, winning the SEC Tournament and earn a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The SEC did not garner a great deal of respect in the seeding, as Florida’s #3 spot in spite of a 27-6 record shows. LSU won the regular season title with a 14-2 league record and had a tremendous inside talent in Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and they were only a #4 seed. Tennessee got some love as the two-seed in the East, while Kentucky and Arkansas headed to 8-9 games and Alabama was #10 in the West. Still, the SEC was a league seen as more quantity than quality when it came to the NCAA Tournament.
Florida did its part for conference honor, holding serve in the first two rounds with an easy win over South Alabama and then blowing out UW-Milwaukee, who’d done them a favor and knocked off #6 Oklahoma. The conference overall took a hit. While LSU survived the weekend, Tennessee was almost beaten in the first round and did lose in round two.
Kentucky gave a spirited run at #1 overall seed UConn before falling short, while Alabama and Arkansas also failed to survive the weekend. It wasn’t a bad weekend for the conference, but certainly anyone evaluating Florida was not going to give them bonus points for league competition.
Donovan took his team north the Minneapolis for the Midwest Regional. For the second straight game his team had a bracket break, as second-seeded Ohio State had been eliminated by Georgetown. Given that the coming year-plus would see Florida beat Ohio State in national title games for both football and basketball, perhaps Buckeye fans have some retrospective gratitude for avoiding this loss.
In an ugly Sweet 16 game the Gators survived the Hoyas because Noah came up with a 15 points/10 rebounds night, Horford kicked in a 12/6, and Florida won 57-53. It set up another date with the Big East, this time top-seeded Villanova.
By the time the Gators and Wildcats took the floor for the final game of regional final weekend late Sunday afternoon, the NCAA bracket was an utter mess. George Mason had stunned the nation earlier in the day by beating UConn, turning my godson’s baptism party into a huge display of hard-core and casual fans alike shouting in disbelief at the television set. LSU had first affirmed some conference honor when they beat Duke in the Sweet 16, then sent another message with a win over Texas to make the Final Four.
Since the NCAA began officially seeding the bracket in 1979 we had never seen a year where all four #1 seeds failed to make the Final Four. Now Duke, Memphis and UConn were gone. Only Villanova remained. And Donovan’s team took care of that in short order with a lockdown defensive performance. In spite of future NBA starters Randy Foyer and Kyle Lowry manning ‘Nova’s backcourt, the Gators held the Wildcats to a shocking 25 percent shooting, while Foye, Lowry and Allan Ray, a third backcourt star to 13-of-36.
Noah concluded a weekend that got him Outstanding Player honors with a 21/15 line and Horford also hauled in 15 boards. Florida turned a 35-30 game at halftime into a decisive 75-62 win and was headed for Indianapolis and the Final Four.
Florida’s good bracket fortune continued as they were the team able to draw George Mason and it was plain from the start that the Colonials were not going to continue this magic ride. While the score was a competitive 31-26 at the half, it was clear GMU was badly overmatched on the inside, as Noah and Horford keyed up a 36-25 rebounding advantage and the guards handled the offense. Florida put on a three-point shooting display, hitting 12-of-25 from behind the arc, led by Brewer and Humphrey with 19 points apiece and nine treys between them.
The opponent on Monday night would be UCLA. And while playing a pretty good #2 seed might be a bracket break for a national championship game, the Bruins were playing outstanding defensive basketball and had decisively beaten the LSU team that was seen as the hottest coming in. Head coach Ben Howland had brought toughness to Hollywood and his team had also taken out its region’s #1 seed in Memphis.
But just as Florida used their own shutdown defense on Monday night. The Bruins were held to 36 percent shooting, including Jordan Farmer and future Denver Nuggets starter Aron Afflalo being hounded into 3-for-15 combined from behind the arc. UCLA was able to match up with Noah and Horford, but Florida as a team shot 45 percent and took command of the game early, leading by 11 at half and winning the NCAA title 73-57. Noah’s 16/9 line got him another Outstanding Player nod.
Soon afterward, Florida fans got even better news—there would be no early departures for the NBA. The five starters were all coming back to do it again and they would do exactly that. 2006 Florida basketball marked the first half of a repeat title run that has been done only twice since the end of the John Wooden dynasty at UCLA.