Hoops steal the show in Gainesville

Published March 28, 2006

GAINESVILLE - Spring football practice begins Wednesday, but for the first time in a long time, it's not the main topic of conversation among Gator fans this week.

The men's basketball team is going to the Final Four.

From sports talk radio to sports bars, the basketball team is the talk of the town.

The Gators arrived in Gainesville around 1:30 a.m. Monday and were greeted by a large gathering of fans at the airport. It's the second time in his 10-year tenure that Billy Donovan is taking a Florida team to the Final Four.

The surprising run of this group with four sophomores in the starting lineup may make this time around even more special.

"I think so," said Bill Donovan , the coach's father. "Not expecting a whole heck of a lot at the start of the season, unranked, it was great to see them come on the way they did and play the way they did. I think the thing that's changed is they played great defense the whole tournament."

Donovan's wife, Christine , said he has always had a strong relationship with his teams, but she can sense a special bond with this group.

"These guys are just special, hard working," she said. "And it just comes from the heart, you know? I think he feels like these guys have the passion he had as a player and they had the work ethic and the desire he had. So I think he can really relate to these guys."

The Gators are basking in the adoration, but haven't lost perspective. Despite repeated questions from northeast reporters about whether Florida can be a basketball school, Donovan said UF is just the Gators.

"I don't think that Billy Donovan is going to change the perception that Florida "is a basketball school,"' the coach said. "I think being in Florida, you have to understand the dynamics. It is not about one sport at Florida. It's about the whole university, the whole athletics program."

Actually, this week it's all about the basketball team.

"We could make history," sophomore guard/forward Corey Brewer said. "We could be the first team to ever win the national championship for Florida."

"FAB" COMPARISONS: With its four rising sophomore stars - Brewer, Al Horford , Joakim Noah and Taurean Green - the Gators are starting to draw comparisons to another talented group of youngsters - Michigan's Fab Five. But if you want some perspective on just how little history matters to young people, consider this: most of the Gator players barely know anything about the Fab Five.

"I mean, I have heard of them," Horford said. "I know they are an outstanding team, but we are a different team."

"I don't know anything about them," Noah chimed in. "I just know that Chris (Webber) was on that team, and Jalen Rose, but whatever. The Gator boys are hot right now so no comparisons."

CBS analyst Billy Packer said the comparisons are unfair and what is most impressive about the Gators is that they play like players with much more experience.

"I think the Fab Five was more talented ... but they were nowhere near as focused as this group is," Packer said Monday.

FAN FRENZY: Although mostly a commuter school with 30,000 students, George Mason has come alive since the team began its Cinderella run . And now that the Patriots are in the Final Four, fan interest is at an all-time high.

"Campus is amazing," sophomore guard/forward Folarin Campbell said during a teleconference Monday. "I actually went to the Johnson Center, our cafeteria, today and people are just happy. They're congratulating me. To walk around campus is just different, like we brought life to the school."

LOTT LIST: Junior linebacker Brandon Siler is among 42 players on the 2006 Lott Trophy Watch List, named after Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott . It is given to college football's Defensive impact Player of the Year.

TIME CHANGE: The baseball game between UF and Vanderbilt has been moved up to 2 p.m. on Saturday to ensure fans have a chance to watch the Final Four game later that evening.

--Antonya English covers Florida athletics. She can be reached at 813 226-3389 or english@sptimes.com