To hear Floridaforward Joakim Noah tell the story, the notion of a repeat came up onlyonce--in Minneapolis, one of the Twin Cities, whose very nickname impliesreplication. Maybe there was a hint of the Duke mystique lingering like carbon14 in the Metrodome, the same building where, in 1992, Christian Laettner'sBlue Devils became the only team since '73 to win back-to-back NCAA men'sbasketball titles. But as Gators coach Billy Donovan led his star sophomores tothe press conference after clinching a berth in last year's Final Four, heturned giddy at the possibilities: "We're going to win it this year, andthen we're going to win it again next year, and you guys will be
remembered as oneof the best teams to ever play the game."
Everyone laughed."It was like, 'Whoa, Coach, we haven't won nuthin' yet,'" says Noah,the Gators' ponytailed talisman. "Besides, we didn't even know if we weregoing to the NBA [after the season]."
But then aremarkable scenario unfolded: Florida beat George Mason 73--58 in the semis anddominated UCLA 73--57 in the final to win its first title. The threesophomores--Noah, center Al Horford and forward Corey Brewer--forsook NBAriches to stay in school. And now, after a 29--5 season that has tested them innew and sometimes confounding ways, Donovan's Gators have a chance toaccomplish one of the rarest feats in contemporary U.S. team sports. Consider:In the 33 years since UCLA coach John Wooden (page 84) won his seventh straighttitle, men's college basketball has had fewer repeat champions (one) than anyother major sport (page 48).
There are severalreasons, but perhaps the biggest of all is the six-game, single-eliminationcrapshoot that has broken repeat aspirants even more fearsome than theseGators. "The NCAA tournament is the most compelling sporting event inAmerica," says former UNLV guard Greg Anthony, whose 34--0defending-champion Runnin' Rebels fell to Duke 79--77 in the 1991 nationalsemis. "And that's because it's the one sport where more often than not thebest team doesn't win. My team that lost to Duke was a better team than my teamthat won it the year before."
Even now the oddsare stacked against Florida, the No. 1 overall seed. Statistical guru KenPomeroy (kenpom.com) figures this year's favorite has only about a 1-in-5chance of winning the title (more on that below)--and as favorites go, theGators are hardly invincible. In late February they lost three of four games,all by double digits. And yet a funny thing happens when you ask the coaches ofother contenders a simple question: Who is the team to beat in this year'stournament?
"Florida,"says Ohio State's Thad Matta.
"Florida,"says Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie.
"Florida,"says Georgetown's John Thompson III.
"TheGators," says Kansas' Bill Self.
"No question:Florida," says Ben Howland of UCLA. "They know they can do it. They'vegot the players. They've got the coach. This year there's a good chance [arepeat] could happen."
repeat championsused to be as common as Chuck Taylors. During the 28-year stretch ending in1973, no major sport had more repeats than men's college basketball (11), andnot all of them were claimed by UCLA. (Oklahoma A&M took titles in 1945 and'46, Kentucky in 1948 and '49, San Francisco in 1955 and '56 and Cincinnati in1961 and '62.) But aside from Laettner's Floorslappers (right), the last threedecades have been marked by excruciating near misses, from Houston's Phi SlammaJamma (1982--84) to Patrick Ewing's Georgetown marauders (1984--85) toArkansas's 40 Minutes of Hell outfits (1994--95). UNLV and Kentucky might havepulled off repeats if not for a pair of ill-starred Andersons: Rebels guardAnderson Hunt, who missed a buzzer-beating three against Duke in '91, andKentucky guard Derek Anderson, who sat out the '97 tournament after tearing hisright ACL.
"Now that I'molder, I realize how rare it is," says former Kentucky guard Cameron Mills,whose Wildcats won titles in 1996 and '98 but lost the '97 final in overtime toArizona. "We were a couple of jump shots away from a three-peat."
Why has the repeatspigot run dry since 1973? Here are a few explanations:
• The One (and OnlyOne) Shining Moment syndrome. What's the point of returning to college whenyou've already reached the top? Florida is the first reigning champion sinceArizona in 1998 to have all five of its starters return. "So many kidsleave early to go to the NBA after winning a championship," says UCLA'sHowland. "You just don't have the Bill Waltons and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars whostay for four years anymore." More common is the sort of mass exodus NorthCarolina experienced in 2005, when four Tar Heels left school early for thepros (Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams).
• The parityprinciple. The tournament is filled with more dangerous teams than ever. On itssoul-stirring run to last year's Final Four, 11th-seeded George Masoneliminated both the defending champion (North Carolina) and a No. 1 seed(Connecticut), providing inspiration for this year's midmajor giant-killers(page 58). A couple of factors have leveled the playing field. Midmajors havemore experience than traditional powerhouses, which lose more players to thepros. What's more, the NCAA's reduction of scholarships from 15 to 13 per teamin 1992 started a trickle-down effect: Lower-tier conferences could snap upplayers who might otherwise have landed in the Big East or Big Ten. AsGillispie points out, women's programs are still allowed 15 scholarships, whichhelps explain why only a few teams dominate the sport.
• The mediamaelstrom. Combined with the NCAA's $6 billion television deal with CBS, therise of 24-hour all-sports media since the 1970s has transformed college hoops,intensifying the pressure on would-be repeaters. When Bill Walton won his lastnational title with UCLA in '73, he almost never spoke to the media. "Itwas much more of a regional sport," says Walton, who was uncomfortabledoing interviews because he stuttered. "Now it's just overwhelming, theconstant nature of the media beast that has to be fed."
After speaking lastsummer with Pat Riley and Bill Belichick--who have won back-to-backchampionships in the NBA and the NFL, respectively--Donovan has tried to damthe flood of media attention this season. "Those guys talked about howthere's only so much emotional energy [your players] have," says Donovan."Noah's constantly being asked: Is your [NBA draft] stock falling or is itup? Do you think coming back was a mistake? After a while that's draining."Donovan's firm stance meant turning down everything from SI's request to poseNoah and point guard Taurean Green on the season preview cover to countlessinterviews with media around the globe. ("I've been cussed out in 22different languages," says Florida media spokesman Fred Demarest.)
• The supersizedbracket. The single most important factor limiting repeats may well be thetournament's six-game, single-elimination format. While nobody should downgradeWooden's feats--the man won 30 straight NCAA tournament games between 1967 and'74--it's true that winning a four-game tournament before '79 was exponentiallyeasier than prevailing in the six-game format instituted in '85. When UCLA wonin '72, seven teams from the Associated Press's pretournament Top 20 didn'teven make the NCAA field of 25.
As Pomeroy notes,playing two fewer games in a diluted NCAA tournament field dramaticallyincreases a favorite's prospects. The chances of a team's reeling off fourstraight victories in which it has an 80% likelihood of winning each game are41%; the chances of a team's taking six straight in which it has a 70%likelihood of winning each game are a more daunting 11.8%. In light of thosenumbers, the right question may not be: Why has only one team repeated since1973? Maybe it's: How the heck did Duke pull it off in 1992?
Or to put it inpresent-day terms: In a bracket with eight genuine national-title contenders,can Florida beat the odds?
it may seemobvious, but it's worth pointing out: Over the next three weeks 64 of the NCAAtournament's 65 teams will lose. Seven teams have the best chance of preventingFlorida's coveted repeat, but their fates will depend on how each one addressesa potentially fatal flaw. To wit:
UCLA In nearlyevery way the Bruins are a better team than the one that made a surprise run tolast year's final. But they may be soft in the middle: Center Ryan Hollins hasgraduated, and it's hard to forget the way Florida's big guys ran roughshodover 6'9" Lorenzo Mata. "Hollins was a force for us down the stretchlast year," says Howland, "but our inside game has been coming on oflate, especially Mata." Perhaps, but UCLA would still be better offavoiding teams with imposing frontcourts like Florida, Georgetown or NorthCarolina.
Kansas TheJayhawks have a terrific balance of skillful scorers and airtight defenders.But as the adage goes, if you have to ask who a team's go-to guy is, that teamprobably doesn't have one. "We know who's going to get the ball, we justdon't know who will take the shot," says Self. It could be any of fourplayers: guards Mario Chalmers, Sherron Collins and Brandon Rush or forwardJulian Wright. If Kansas finds itself in a tight finish, will that uncertaintyunhinge a team that has been upset in the first round the last two years?
North CarolinaWhen the most dangerous attacking team in the land lost three of its last sixregular-season games, swingman Marcus Ginyard questioned the Tar Heels' heart."The toughness question comes from the way [we haven't] gone after looseballs and rebounds," says coach Roy Williams. "We've said, 'Hey, if youwant to rebound the ball, you have to be tough enough to stick your nose inthere.'" Will the broken schnoz suffered by Tyler Hansbrough doing justthat in a March 4 win over Duke become a bloody shirt for the Heels? Or mightUNC wilt against tougher teams like Pittsburgh, Texas A&M or Wisconsin?
Ohio State TheBuckeyes were the country's hottest team down the stretch, winning their last17 games of the season as 7-foot freshman center Greg Oden altered games withhis defense and regained nearly full use of his right (shooting) hand followingwrist surgery. Can Oden start taking over on the offensive end too? "Inessence, we've been coaching two different teams this year," says Matta. IfOhio State can play as one unit instead of two camps of freshmen and veterans,look out.
Wisconsin Any teamthat was ranked No. 1 in late February has to be formidable, Badgers coach BoRyan argues, and he's right, although Wisconsin promptly dropped two straightand--even worse--lost starting center Brian Butch at least until the Final Fourwith a dislocated right elbow. "If you take the top rebounder off any team,that's hard to replace," says Ryan. "How we pick up for Brian is goingto tell the tale." Butch was also the Badgers' best-shooting big man, whichwill put even more pressure on forward Alando Tucker and guard Kammron Taylor,who are the only creators in Ryan's swing offense.
Texas A&MPoint guard Acie Law IV wants the ball in crunch time even though everyone inthe arena knows he'll get it. "That's a concern, but we'll go to himanyway," says Gillispie. "He's just a phenomenal player who gives yourteam great confidence." In that case the Aggies' potential Achilles' heelmay be the foul-prone ways of center Joseph Jones, who set up his own DQfranchise this season by fouling out six times (and in three of Texas A&M'ssix losses).
Georgetown Beforethe season Thompson cautioned that his team might struggle early with a youngperimeter cast surrounding big men Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, but he addedthat the parts were in place to contend by March. That's exactly what happened."We've gotten better, which has allowed Jeff and Roy just to play aseveryone else has gained experience," says Thompson. The Hoyas' 36.6%three-point shooting is still a sore spot, as is the fact that their bestoutside shooter, Jonathan Wallace, is also their point guard.
as they pursue ahistoric double, the Gators have their own concerns, of course--but most oftheirs are away from the court. "Florida is the most gifted team," saysTar Heels coach Williams, "but they also have a lot more distractions."It would be so much easier if the challenge of winning a second title were nomore difficult than winning the first. But it's not. "It's totallydifferent--and a lot harder," says Noah. "When we're playing in sync,we're the best team. When we're focused, we're better than we were last year,and if we achieve our goals, people will remember us as one of the best teamsto ever play college basketball. But to get to that level we realize there's areal thin line between winning and losing. I mean, we lost to the worst team inthe SEC [LSU] without its best player [Glen Davis]."
Yet as Noah knows,none of that matters now. May the best team (over the next three weeks)win.
Twice upon a Time
The Blue Devils of 1991 and '92, the last repeatchampions, have instructive tales for the team that would match their feat
NO, THE 1991 and '92 national champion Duke Blue Devilswon't be angry if Florida joins them as the second team since John Wooden'sUCLA dynasty to win back-to-back titles. Just so you know, those former Dukiesdon't gather every year when the defending champ goes down to drink a champagnetoast--as some alums of the undefeated '72 Miami Dolphins do whenever the lastperfect NFL team loses each season. "We don't take it that seriously,"says former Blue Devils forward Grant Hill. "We're pretty secure in ourplace in history, and feel like we're up there with those UCLA teams."
"I believe that we were the best team ever,"says Brian Davis, who was Duke's co-captain with Christian Laettner. "Wefelt like if we beat the best team ever in UNLV [in the 1991 nationalsemifinals], then we were the best, and going back-to-back proved it."
Like Florida's 2006 championship, the Blue Devils'first title was a surprise. But their successful defense with the same nucleus(Hill, Laettner and point guard Bobby Hurley) was a completely differentexperience. Hill remembers arriving at their hotel in Philadelphia for the '92East Regional and being met by hundreds of teenage girls screaming for theteam--or at least its matinee idol. One woman was wearing a homemade sweatshirtthat read LAETTNER LOVER. "I felt like I was traveling with a rockstar," Hill says, "and I was the bass player."
That Beatles vibe only intensified after Laettnerreceived Hill's 75-foot pass and hit the turnaround buzzer-beater that sankKentucky 104--103 in the East Regional final, which is still considered by manyto be the greatest college basketball game of all time. Yet the focus of theDevils' recollections may be different from that of most fans. "We realizeit was an exciting game that symbolizes March Madness to a lot of people, butwe were disappointed that we let it be a close game," Hill says."Still, it helped us regroup for the Final Four."
When Duke repeated by blowing out Michigan's Fab Five71--51 in Minneapolis, the feeling was more of relief than of triumph, Hillsays. Davis and Laettner had motivated the team by stoking a desire to silencecoach Mike Krzyzewski, who had made constant references to his first Final Fourteam. "We were like, 'We're better than that,'" says Davis, who hasteamed with Laettner to form Blue Devil Partners, a real estate developmentfirm that's bidding to purchase the Memphis Grizzlies. "So we wonback-to-back titles and asked him, 'Are we better than '86 now?'"
The Duke alums say they'll be watching Florida over thenext three weeks, and their advice for the Gators is straightforward."Treat your teammates like brothers and don't think about the NBA,"says Davis, one of six members of the '92 team to play in the pros. "Thinkabout winning." They also appreciate the opportunity that the Gators' questhas given them to relive their own run. "We still have that one thing thatbonds us," says Hill. "I don't have a relationship with anyone elselike I do with the guys on that team." --G.W.
A Rare Pair
From 1974 to the present, college basketball has hadfewer repeat champions (one) than any other major U.S. team sport. Yet from1946 (when Oklahoma A&M won its second consecutive title) to '73, no sporthad more repeaters (11, including Alex Groza, above, and Kentucky in '48 and'49) than college hoops.
1974 to PRESENT REPEAT CHAMPS
1946 to '73 REPEAT CHAMPS
*Since 1982, the first year of the women's Division Itournament.
BILL FRAKES (DONOVAN)
PRESS CLIPPING Donovan has cut down on media access, to limit the Gators' distractions.
GREG NELSON (HORFORD)
SLAM-DUNK DECISION Horford, who was projected as a lottery pick last June, passed up the NBA for a chance to make history.
GREG NELSON (ACTION)
WHO'S IN CHARGE? The unselfish Rush leads a balanced Kansas team in scoring, but the lack of a clear go-to guy could be fatal.
MEL LEVINE (GATEFOLD)
The Evolution >>SI's decade-by-decade look at the history of the Big Dance.