NEW ORLEANS, LA — A year ago, they were the new kids on the block, a talented team that everybody thought was perhaps a year away from putting it all together. As the Florida Gators start their quest for a second straight NCAA championship Friday when they face Jackson State, they are no longer a novelty item but instead they are the team everybody wants to beat.
It has been a season under the microscope for Coach Billy Donovan’s team. They are 29-5, regular season and tournament champions in the Southeastern Conference. The championships were expected. When you return your five starters and two top reserves from a team that won the national championship the year before, anything less than a championship is considered a disappointment by the fan base.
And that takes us to the eve of the NCAA Tournament. The Gators are the number one overall seed in the entire tournament so the expectations will be far beyond anything that anyone envisioned in 2006. For the most part, they’ve handled the high expectations and unreal demands with poise and class. Thursday afternoon, the top seven returning players from last year talked about a season that’s been fun but one that has also had a few disappointments, too.
JOAKIM NOAH: “The most fun has definitely been winning championships. Winning the SEC championship was fun. Winning the SEC Tournament was a lot of fun. The most fun has been playing well with my teammates. Just playing well with the guys and knowing when it’s really clicking. I think Ohio State was a lot of fun because we played well as a team. I don’t think individually it was one of my best games but I just felt like it was fun because we were just clicking and having fun together.
“I think I was disappointed at times but I was disappointed that people would come to me and have an opinion and always something to say. At the beginning of the year we would win basketball games and I might not have a 20-point game or something. I would have a 10-point game or something but I was happy because we won the game and we did the right thing but people expected so much more of me because of last year, especially in the tournament. When you hear that six, seven, eight, nine times in a day, it’s draining because everybody has an opinion and judging you that you have to do this or you have to do that. I don’t think it’s in a bad way but I just don’t think people understand what I’m going through. Last year it didn’t matter. Anything we did, people were happy but this year we would win basketball games and that was never enough. People wanted more. People weren’t happy with winning basketball games. That was disappointing. And when things didn’t go well for me, people were so quick to judge me and ask what’s wrong with him? After we won the national championship, the way people would perceive me, it was crazy. It was like I wasn’t even a normal person. People were assuming things when things didn’t go great on the court and people were so quick to have something to say and talk bad and to me that was interesting. I felt like I played for people like that but now I realized that it’s about playing for the people that are really important to me. It’s hard because we were really under a microscope this year. I guess that’s part of it. If you can deal with the good — and we’ve gone through a lot of good and I’ve been through a lot of good — you have to learn to deal with the bad, too.
COREY BREWER: “The most fun thing was winning the SEC Tournament again and being with the fellas, just being back here on our team. It’s a lot of fun and it was fun going through the process.
“The most disappointing thing was probably losing those games at the end of the year in the SEC. We were 12-0 and then we lost three out of four. We did a pretty good job of handling it. We were under the microscope and everybody was talking about us but I think we probably handled it very well. Now we’re in a good position. I understand what Jo’s dad (Yannick Noah) goes through every day now.”
AL HORFORD: “I think just the whole season and the process of us being able to stay focused and staying consistent after winning a national championship has been fun. The most fun thing was after winning the SEC Tournament just because we realize that we have to be able to embrace every opportunity that we get. We celebrated it the right way.
“The lowest point of the year was when we beat South Carolina and won the SEC outright and we got a little complacent and were not really into it and stuff like that. I think that was a foggy time for our team but I’m proud of the way we got back on track. I have been fortunate enough to be pretty healthy throughout my career but this year has been a learning experience for me. It’s frustrating sometimes because you want to be out there with the team and doing things you normally do but you can’t do it because you’re limited because of your ankle. I’ve just tried to help the team and do what I can.
TAUREAN GREEN: I think the biggest enjoyment this season has been playing with my teammates, just being about to play with them and go into battle with them each game and playing together as a team.
The biggest disappointment was that stretch at the end of the regular season when we lost three out of four games. You can’t worry about people though. When you’re winning everybody is with you, but when you lose you really find out who’s really with you and who really cares about you. You just can’t worry about the outside. You have to worry about teammates, the coaching staff and the people on the team. It’s crazy how people are.”
LEE HUMPHREY: “The most fun thing that’s happened this year — and this spans the whole entire year — has been playing together one more year as a team. For me as a senior that was really an important thing to be able to come back and play one more year with all these guys. When you’re a senior and you find out that these guys are going to come back and play one more year and you’re going to get to play with guys you’re so close to … that’s important and that’s been special. Nowadays in college basketball you don’t get a chance too often to play with the guys you’ve grown so close to.
“As a team we stayed tight in the times when we were a little down. If we had our choice we wouldn’t have gone through that. As a team the only real disappointments were losing those three out of four games. That wasn’t great but we came back. This year has been a lot different than it was last year because we have had so much more attention this year than we had last year. Overall, though, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of handling it.”
CHRIS RICHARD: “The most fun has been the whole season. We’ve been winning a lot of games and we’ve broken a lot of records. The whole season has been the best for me. I don’t think of things as down even though we lost a few games because we learned and we learned what we need to do if we don’t want to lose.
“The people that doubt and things like that are people that don’t even know us as people. They only see us on TV. We’ll probably have a lot of people coming to see us here for the first time when maybe they could have come to see us play in Gainesville. A lot of people get on the bandwagon when you’re going good.”
WALTER HODGE: “The best thing is we’ve played together and we’ve played really hard. We’ve won a lot of games.
“The disappointing thing was losing games but even that, we learned a lot and we got better. Sometimes no matter what, no matter where we go, there are people that want to talk about us and sometime they’re not nice but we just don’t think about them anymore. We just think about us — our team — and we stay together and we know that we can win if we do that. We’re a family on this team so we know that we can’t worry about anybody else except the people on our team. It’s about our team.”