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Ghosts gone, focus remains

Published March 19, 2006

JACKSONVILLE - It was less celebration than absolution. The cleansing of a basketball program so accustomed to sins of omission.

So as the final seconds ticked away early Saturday evening in Florida's 82-60 victory against Milwaukee-Wisconsin, they did not preen or prance. They hugged, shook the hands of their opponents, and gently wrapped their pride around them as if it were a long vanished shawl.

It wasn't necessarily a triumph to be remembered, but rather an accomplishment capable of erasing previous memories.

Florida is back in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16, an achievement notable mainly for its elusiveness in recent years.

Five seasons previously, the Gators had fallen short in tournament's first weekend. Sometimes disappointingly. Often devastatingly.

So, for some, this moment was not to be tightfisted. The Gators have often made a point that they were not a part of the previous transgressions, but they have not completely forgotten what their predecessors had endured.

"Coach Donovan is so passionate about the game and that's the reason a lot of us are here," sophomore forward Joakim Noah said. "We're not doing it just for him, we're doing it for everyone.

"This doesn't have anything to do with us. We weren't part of those teams that fell short. We play for the front of the jerseys. I honestly play for Udonis Haslem, Major Parker. I played for those guys. For Anthony Roberson. We're not just representing for us, we're representing for everybody."

As much as they were loathe to admit it in the days leading up to the tournament, the Gators could not extricate themselves from recent failures.

They were guilty by association. Guilty by reputation. Few of them were around when Florida was upset by Manhattan the first round of 2004. Fewer were still were there for the loss to Creighton in 2002.

But, still, they carried the program's stigma. Much as Arizona had done decades before after a string of earlier upsets. As a lone snapshot, each early-round flameout could be explained. But in its totality, it gave the impression of a team that underachieved or, worse yet, lacked heart.

That is what has made this team unique. It has none of the advantages of last season's roster - the three best players had all moved on to dreams of the NBA - but it created its own brand of prosperity.

It is a team that refuses to be burdened by expectations, and is adamant it will not be limited by its so-called shortcomings.

The Gators have no All America candidates, but does not have a weak link. It does not have a particular strength, other than its ability to adapt and adjust depending on opponents and situations.

Five months ago, the Gators were not even ranked. Today, after winning their first two rounds in the NCAA by a combined 48-point margin, they appear as confident and as hot as any team remaining in the field.

"Our goal is to win it all," Noah said. "If there's anybody on this team who thinks the Sweet 16 is fine - that we're good now - that would hurt my feelings. We were up at 6 a.m. in the beginning of the season. Guys were throwing up, guys with tears from so much pain.

"Those are things you don't see. Everybody else is nice and cozy in their beds and we're out there sweating. That's what it's all about. This is the test right now. Everybody on this team realizes how much we've sacrificed. And there's no reason for us to stop now."

As a program, the Gators are long overdue. And, yet, as a team, they remain hopelessly premature.

The reality is this lineup is still a little too young to be considered serious Final Four contenders. It is not easy to win six tournament games when your four top scorers are sophomores and your lone senior plays mop-up.

Point guard Taurean Green played well against the Wisconsin-Milwaukee press on Saturday, but the intensity will only increase. And junior guard Lee Humphrey is not expected to find open 3-pointers in the coming weekend.

Still, there is hope for the Gators. Their intensity is remarkable. Their unselfishness is rare and their confidence cannot be denied.

Perhaps the best indication of all is the way they walked off the court after Saturday's second-round victory. Happy, yes. But not ecstatic. Proud of their accomplishment, but not overwhelmed by passing an early test.

They already were talking about the third-round game, and refused to be drawn into too many questions about exorcising previous ghosts.

They behaved almost as if they expected this weekend to come off without a hitch. As if there were no reason to doubt success was destined for them.

And maybe they're right.

[Last modified March 19, 2006, 01:07:22]

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