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Final Fall

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- For the losers, the journey never takes you all the way to the end of the line. The final, painful moments, you travel on your own.

It is the longest walk in sport, this trail of tears from the center of an arena that has just turned into someone else's party. You move through the celebration, an uninvited guest. Your head is hung, and your dreams are in ruin, and the wrong people are holding your trophy, cutting your nets.

And so it was that the Gators of Billy Donovan, the darndest college basketball team in the history of the school, the state and the shadows of the goalposts, walked away from a season. With Brett Nelson looking on with hollow eyes as Mateen Cleaves celebrates. With Matt Bonner weaving through the opponents as they danced. With a team vacating the court, and the season, so the coronation could begin.

Turns out, the Gators' takeover of college basketball was delayed, at least for now, by Michigan State, 89-76. This was Cleaves turning into Willis Reed, limping toward victory, with Morris Peterson and the rest falling in line and telling the Gators to just wait their turn like everyone else.

[AP photo]
Mike Miller leaves the court after the Gators' defeat.

For the first time in the tournament, an opponent was able to stand up to the pressure the Gators bring to the floor. The Spartans were faster, fresher, more focused on a goal they have chased longer. For the first time in this tournament, Florida looked immature, unsure, unripe. For the first time, it seemed the Gators still had something they could learn from their opponent.

Soon, perhaps, the sting will wear off, and the golden moments of a run unprecedented by a basketball team from the University of Florida will begin to return. The euphoria of beating Butler. The closing of the door on the Lon Kruger defection. The defeats of Duke and North Carolina. The mad dash to the doorstep of a national basketball championship. For now, their heads are down. For now, their shoulders are slumped.

They almost pulled it off. Sixty more minutes by these likeable kids, impossibly young, and people would have been joking about the University of Florida, basketball school. One more game, and kids would have stuck their combs into the gunk, and they would have spent a day trying to look like Billy Donovan. One more victory, and the Gators would have exactly as many basketball championships as football.

There is something about the Gators that makes the rest of the college basketball world uncomfortable.

* * *

The Florida Gators, masters of the universe. Can you imagine the repercussions in Lawrence, Kan., if that would have happened? In Durham and Chapel Hill and Lexington? How loudly would Roy Williams and Eddie Fogler, the Kansas and South Carolina coaches who have groused that Billy Donovan was making a pretzel out of the recruiting rules, have whined?

There is something about the Gators that makes the rest of the college basketball world uncomfortable. That is true on the court, where they play like a swarm of locusts at feeding time, fast-forwarding each game until it gets to the good parts. And it is true off it, where the Gators have pulled up a chair to the table and announced themselves to be one of the elites of college basketball.

It is not quite clear whether it is the distance that Florida's team has traveled, or the speed, that most seems to unnerve other programs. Rapid construction seems to make outsiders question whether code has been followed and, after all, isn't basketball reserved for places where snow covers the ground, where tobacco is in the field and where football, frankly, stinks to high heaven?

On the court, and off of it, the Gators have embarrassed other teams, dared them to keep up, made them look slow and lazy. And so they whisper that the Gators must have taken a shortcut to get from there to here, even though the charges don't stick. Those are the people who watch the Devil's Advocate, where a slick-haired Keanu Reeves is counseled by Satan in the form of Al Pacino, and they suggest it is a representation of Donovan and Rick Pitino.

For all the discomfort, however, this must be said: From the looks of it, however, they might as well get used to the sight.

This team will be back. There are other programs that reach the Final Four -- Wisconsin this year, Florida in '95 come to mind -- and it seems like a guest appearance, a magical journey that may be decades in the repeating. But not Florida, with four freshmen and four sophomores in the 10-man rotation. This has the look of a dynasty in bloom, of a team that will knock on the door again. And again.

Odd, because in the old days, the only discomfort the Gators basketball program seemed to cause was to those few who tried to watch it. This was Norm Sloan's program, and John Lotz's. It was Vernon Maxwell being expunged from the record book, and Dwayne Schintzius quibbling about the length of his hair with Don DeVoe. It was Lon Kruger taking a fast horse out of town. It was coach after coach feeling dwarfed by the football program. Oh, there are hurdles to clear. Agents have Mike Miller on speed-dial, it appears, and they've heard of Donnell Harvey, too. But neither are ready for the NBA. Miller needs more strength, Harvey needs a shot. As Cleaves and Peterson did for the Spartans a year ago, when they returned for this moment, they need to stay in college for at least one more year.

Slowly, as the frustration of this game peels away, such thoughts will occur to the Gators. Their hunger will be rekindled. And eventually, this thought will occur.

This was not an end, after all.

It was only a step.

* * *

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