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Little has changed for Gators Gators count on chemistry in their bid for second title

UF's returning starting five has same expectation: win it all, again. But saying is easier than repeating.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published November 5, 2006


GAINESVILLE - Late in the spring, four of the five starters from Florida's newly crowned national championship team sat in coach Billy Donovan's office and pondered their futures.

The NBA draft was on the horizon with millions of dollars at stake. But in the midst of the discussion, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah rediscovered something that had become evident to nearly everyone who witnessed their improbable run to the national title last season.

The Gators had something money couldn't buy.

Florida won the school's first national championship with arguably the greatest intangible of all: chemistry.

"When we went down to Gainesville and saw them early in the season, we all commented they had such a special chemistry," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "To keep those kids all intact was really special."

When Florida opens the season against Samford on Friday, the Gators will become the first defending champion since Arizona in 1997-98 to return all five starters. The Wildcats lost in the Elite Eight.

Everyone, including Donovan, is eager to see if the players can retain the chemistry that helped make them champions.

"I think all the questions about our basketball team are legitimate concerns because they are human beings," Donovan said. "They are 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids that are human beings. And being able to handle success is one of the most difficult things. ... Everything that's being said to our team right now is poison, but the only way it kills our team is if they swallow it, take it in and believe it."

The Gators show no signs of that. Brewer, Horford, Noah and Green are roommates for the third straight year. Fifth starter and senior Lee Humphrey is part of the tight-knit group. According to the players, everything is the same as it was last year at this time. Except the expectations.

"Nothing has changed," Brewer said. "We all still live together. We all still get along. We still do everything together. We're the same guys we were last year when nobody believed in us. This (national championship) isn't going to change us. It's just going to make us more hungry."

The Gators, with the loss of only two players (senior Adrian Moss and guard David Huertas, who transferred to Ole Miss), are the preseason No. 1 in many rankings. But the games aren't played on paper.

"There are so many things that can go wrong, and you can't control all of it," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, whose team won a national title in 1997-98, returned two starters then lost in the Elite Eight the next season. "The chemistry, the flow of things. You control some things and try to protect them, but I would (say) just to try to duplicate the things you did last year."

"I think as coaches we're constantly trying to manage how we handle failure and how we handle success, and that's tricky," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who has won six national titles. "We won the championship with Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings and that group. And we came back the next year and pretty much had the same team. I remember walking out on the floor right before our first practice and Chamique says, 'Coach, I just can't wait.' I'm thinking she can't wait to practice, and (she said), 'I can't wait for the tournament.' I said, 'Chamique we've got a season ahead of us.' "

Tennessee saw its national title streak end at three (1996-98) that season.

The Gators are convinced it won't happen to them, insisting they can handle the pressure.

"Why not?" Green said. "Why can't we? We're the same guys, really. Winning hasn't changed us."

Some analysts concur.

"What I really respect about the way Billy Donovan does it is he's kept it about the team first," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "These guys buy into that. If you go to the basketball office, there are no pictures of individual players. All the pictures are of the players together interacting with each other."

The NCAA championship rings are locked away. Reporters' questions are being steered away from last season's accomplishments and focused on this season, including integrating four new players.

"We know what the expectations are for this team, but we also know we have to not worry about what other people say or think," Horford said. "We have to stay humble, remember how hard we worked to get here and not let what other people say get to us.

"We just have to stick together, and we'll be fine."

When last season began, none of the starters received much attention. All averaged double figures, but by the end of the season, Noah had become the media darling. Horford and Green drew tons of attention because of their fathers, former NBA players.

The Gators have refused to be photographed for magazine covers and other publications unless the entire team is involved.

"Billy Donovan has done a phenomenal job instilling in them that they represent the jersey they wear," Vitale said. "They are so unselfish. The biggest problem they face is they are going to be hunted everywhere they go.

"Like Notre Dame in football and Duke and North Carolina in basketball, everybody will play at another level when they see that Florida jersey. They will be bulletin board material. They will get everybody's best shot."