A year ago this time, just getting to the Final Four had Florida fans pinching themselves and feeling rather giddy. Who would have ever thought that the Gators, minus David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh, could make the Final Four, much less win the whole darn thing? Only dreamers who dream big dreams ever thought the Gators would be the ones cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
A year ago, the Gators were somewhat of a novelty act when the NCAA Tournament began. They breezed through the first two rounds, as expected, then everybody thought that once the competition toughened up in the Sweet 16, Florida’s one-trick ponies would head home like they always do. Much to everybody’s surprise — Gator Nation included — they didn’t go away. Not at the regional. Not at the Final Four. They just kept doing what felt good, which was playing tough defense, making big shots and winning, which is why they were the last team standing on that April night in Indianapolis when it came time to cut down the nets. Even though the expectations for this year’s team have been far greater, the Gators are back in the Final Four a second straight year because they have followed the same formula for success.
The Gators were the second best story in the NCAA Tournament last year. Only George Mason’s improbable run to the Final Four — ended by the Gators in the semifinals — was a bigger story. Bigger because the George Masons of the world just don’t knock off UConn with its 47 future first rounders on the roster in regional championship games. There’s some sort of NCAA rule on page two thousand and whatever that says 13 seeds from the CAA aren’t allowed in the Final Four. There’s also some sort of NCAA rule that says that the Floridas of the basketball world — if the Gators were to go 30-0 for the next 30 years and Kentucky went 0-30 for the next 30, the Gators would draw even in victories — don’t knock off been there, done that teams like UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas or Duke in the championship game.
But Florida did knock off UCLA, as improbable as that might sound to a basketball purist and the purists still haven’t forgiven the Gators for preventing the mighty Bruins from winning their unprecedented twelfth NCAA title. So here are the Gators one year later, back in the Final Four for a second straight year and ironically, facing UCLA again. It’s only the semifinals but the winner gets to play for the championship and a piece of history. If UCLA wins, the Bruins add banner number 12 to the Pauley Pavilion rafters, which is five more national titles than Kentucky. If Florida wins this game, the Gators will be able to stand elbow-to-elbow with some of the greatest teams in history.
And that includes UCLA.
Think about it while we take a moment to run down the list of teams that have won back-to-back titles:
OKLAHOMA A&M (now Oklahoma State) 1945-46: The Aggies (they’re Cowboys now) of coach Henry Iba had a seven-footer named Bob Kurland in a day when tall centers were 6-5. There were only eight teams in the tournament in those days.
KENTUCKY 1948-49: Adolph Rupp was the coach and the Wildcats had the legendary (and original) Fab Five of Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, Kenny Rollins, Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones and Cliff Barker. Groza was the best player in the country and Kentucky won the eight-team tournament.
SAN FRANCISCO 1955-56: Coach Phil Woolpert had perhaps the greatest basketball player in history in Bill Russell. The Dons won 60 games in a row and were considered the best team ever at that point in time. K.C. Jones (legendary teammate of Russell’s on the Boston Celtics) was on that team. The tournament had expanded to 25 teams.
CINCINNATI 1961-62: Led by 6-9 Paul Hogue, Coach Ed Jucker’s team beat Ohio State both years for the national championship. Ohio State, which won the tournament in 1960, made the Final Four three straight years but got only one title with a lineup that included Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Bob Knight. Cincinnati was stopped short of its quest to win three straight when Loyola of Chicago upset the Bearcats in the 1963 championship game. It was a 25-team tournament.
UCLA 1964-65: Coach John Wooden got the first two of his record 10 national championships with a starting lineup that had no one taller than 6-6 Keith Erickson. Guards Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich were the stars of this team which turned games into a track meet with its full-court press. The tournament was open to 25 teams.
UCLA 1966-73: This is the record that is unlikely to ever be duplicated. The star of the first three titles in this run was Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The stars of the next two championships were Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. The last two were led by Bill Walton. During the Walton years the Bruins had an 88-game winning streak (snapped by Notre Dame). The tournament field during all seven of these championships was 25 games.
DUKE 1991-92: Christian Laettner was the star of Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s teams that were the last to do the back-to-back thing. Duke is the only team to win back-to-back since the NCAA field was expanded, first to 48 teams and then to 65.
Only six teams have ever done two in a row and only one has gone off for three or more.
Now consider this. Kentucky is the winningest program in college basketball history and the Wildcats have only gone back-to-back once. North Carolina ranks number two in all-time wins and the Tar Heels have never done a repeat. Kansas? If Florida wins the title this year, the Gators will have the exact same number of national titles as that legendary program. Duke’s only done two straight once.
The reasons that UCLA’s record of seven in a row will probably stand for eternity are quite simple: the expansion of the NCAA field to 65 teams and open seeding. In UCLA’s heyday, there were only 25 teams in the entire tournament and there was no open seeding, which meant teams from the south stayed in the south, teams from the west stayed in the west, etc. In those days, there weren’t any good teams in the west except UCLA so the Bruins had a two-game cakewalk to the Final Four. Now, this isn’t meant to take anything away from those great UCLA teams because John Wooden was probably the greatest coach in history and nobody had a greater run of talent than the Bruins, but you have to admit, it’s a lot tougher to win six in a row in the NCAA Tournament than it is to win four straight.
No matter how UCLA got to seven in a row, that’s almost unthinkable in this era of basketball. The next standard is two-in-a-row. That sounds easy but history proves it’s one of the more difficult tasks in all of sports since only six teams in history have every gone back-to-back. Perhaps it is fate that makes UCLA the first of two remaining obstacles in Florida’s path. Because it’s UCLA that stands in the way, it means that to make history, the Gators have to beat history.
When it comes to the Final Four and history, nobody has more of it than UCLA so to be considered one of the great teams of all time Florida will have to get past the team that has more championships in its pedigree than anyone else. To win it all, the Gators have to beat the team that has the most chapters in the basketball history book.
Yet, when the Gators face off against UCLA Saturday the lack of wins in Florida’s basketball history won’t have any bearing on the outcome. The outcome will be decided by two very well-coached teams, both thirsting for the same reward. The outcome won’t be determined by history, but Florida’s chance to earn a place in the history books will indeed be determined by what the Gators do.
Win and Florida is one hurdle away from joining the very short list of truly great teams that have proven their greatness by winning back-to-back titles. Win twice and there is no question that the Gators rank among the all-time best. Maybe nobody will say this team is the best of all time but they’ll have to say Florida is on the short list and the record books will prove it.
Florida among the all-time best basketball teams in college history? It wasn’t that long ago that getting into the NCAA Tournament was a big deal. Now it’s been done nine straight years. Getting to the Final Four that first time in 1994 was considered one of college basketball’s all-time flukes. Now that the Gators are in the Final Four for third time in the last seven years and looking to repeat as national champions the Gators are no longer a fluke. They have arrived.
Winning a national championship seemed like the impossible dream last year. Two in a row? That’s for dreamers who dream big dreams.
Do you dream big dreams?