Florida was the king of college sports, having won the national title in both basketball and football in 2006 and the 2007 Florida basketball team was primed to keep the good times rolling in Gainesville.
Billy Donovan’s team snuck up on people in 2006, but this time they were the consensus #1 basketball team in the land, with Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer leading a team that had all five starters back. The Gators were aiming to be the first team since Duke in 1991 and 1992 to go back-to-back, and only the second team since the end of the UCLA dynasty of John Wooden to pull off the feat.
An early loss to Kansas dropped Florida from the top spot on the polls, but they got a big 86-60 win at home over Ohio State, with its dynamic freshman duo of point guard Mike Conley and center Greg Oden. Their December 23 trip to Gainesville would have been hyped anyway and with the schools having just played for the football championship, it gained an added storyline. Florida’s thumping forced the Buckeyes to regroup.
The Gators themselves reclaimed the top spot in the polls in mid-January and held it for a month, as their record climbed to 23-2. But just as they had a year earlier, the Gators endured a skid during a basically soft schedule. They lost three of five, although they were able to recover and make it back to #3 in the polls by the end of the season and another victory in the SEC Tournament gave them a #1 seed in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
With Kentucky still down, the SEC wasn’t a good basketball league, even though Florida now had the championship pedigree to get benefit of the doubt from anyone, in spite of their schedule. Five conference teams made the tournament, though Florida was the only one seeded higher than 5th.
The Gators hammered Jackson State to open the tournament, then beat back a challenge from feisty Purdue, 74-67 in the second round. Meanwhile, their league brethren did some surprise work, with both Vanderbilt and Tennessee pushing through to the regionals.
Florida would play for the Final Four in St. Louis, with Butler as the first opponent. The Bulldogs were a good team and head coach Todd Lickliter would cash in this job for one at Iowa—turns out Lickliter left a team that wasn’t far from consecutive trips to the NCAA final in 2010-11, for one that would fire him in short order.
On this night in St.Loo, Butler fought hard and only trailed by six at the half. But Florida could get to the foul line and a 23-10 scoring advantage there was decisive, as Green’s 17 point, with Noah and Horford combining for 16 rebounds led a 65-57 win.
Oregon was the Midwest’s #3 seed and the last opponent in the way of a Final Four. In a fast-paced game, Florida’s backcourt came up big, with the backcourt of Lee Humphrey and Tauren Green each producing 21 points, while Noah and Horford led the way in ensuring the team won the rebounding battle decisively. Florida led by just two at the half, but ultimately prevailed 85-77, with Green picking up regional MVP honors.
Atlanta is a hallowed site for SEC fans as the host of the conference’s football championship game in December. This year it was also the site of the Final Four and a familiar team was standing in Florida’s way. UCLA, the team Florida vanquished in the 2006 NCAA final was the opponent in the national semi-final. And if Florida should survive that test an even more familiar foe was potentially up next—Ohio State was the favorite in its semi-final against Georgetown.
Florida’s defense again overpowered UCLA as the Bruins could only shoot 39 percent. And unlike last year’s final game, this time the Gators also owned the glass. Horford was unstoppable on the glass with 17 rebounds, while Noah had 11. Brewer opened up the paint by bagging four treys and Florida turned a 29-23 halftime lead into a decisive win by ripping off 47 second-half points in a 76-66 final. Howland had gotten his team to two straight Final Fours, but the Gators kept standing in his way.
Ohio State took care of its business and for the second time in three months, covering two different sports, the world would watch a Florida-Ohio State battle for the national championship.
Oden would go on to be the first pick in the NBA draft by Portland and the problems with his knees have given that story a sad ending. But on a Monday in Atlanta, Oden showed Florida and the basketball world why everyone was so high on him, as he scored 25 points and had a haul of 24 rebounds, all the while effectively rubbing out Noah. Conley had 20 points and six assists.
If you could play two-on-two this might have been different, but Florida’s overall balance was too much. They hit ten three-pointers to Ohio State’s four, and they scored 22 points at the line to Ohio State’s 11. Horford’s 18/12 game partially negated Oden’s heroics, but Green scored 16 and dished six assists, while Brewer kicked in eight rebounds.
Florida led 40-29 at half, and while Ohio State never went away, there was also never a point as you watched that you thought they might win. Florida’s 84-75 win secured their place in history—a second straight title for the basketball program.