Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Back in November, I Thought They Were a Year Away...
By Imtiaz Mussa

Back in November, I never thought I would be watching the future national champions take the court at Madison Square Garden. The Florida Gators were unranked and many of their players were unknown to the common college hoops fan. Their game against then Number 18 Wake Forest was just the opening act. Syracuse led by Gerry McNamara would take on Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech Red Raiders in the late game. There are an abundance of Syracuse fans in the New York City area and then there are those who wanted to see Bobby Knight. Who cared about the Florida Gators?

In the Florida-Wake Forest game, I realized two things. First, the Demon Deacons were really going to miss Chris Paul. They looked like a team that would only sneak into the tournament if they were even that lucky. Their number 18 ranking was very generous. Justin Gray is a good shooting guard but had to make a difficult adjustment to point guard. Frankly, he looked very uncomfortable trying to create for others when he is used to getting his own buckets. The second thing I realized is that this Florida team had some serious talent and maybe in a year, could be a serious contender for a national championship. Sophomore guard Taurean Green was very impressive as he scored 23 points and stepped up in the clutch as the Gators pulled away late in the second half. Forward Al Horford and Guard Corey Brewer both looked like solid players but I thought the X-factor was a player who I thought had the build and game of Marcus Camby. His name is Joakim Noah. Though he was in foul trouble throughout the game, he looked like a game changer. He wasn’t going to necessarily lead the team in scoring but he would grab the clutch rebound or make the big block that would help his team win. All of these players are sophomores. All I could think to myself is that Florida will have plenty to look forward to if they all stick around for next season. Like many, I thought this was UConn’s title to lose.

Syracuse fans had plenty of reasons to be confident heading into this game. Their beloved Orangemen crushed Texas Tech 81-46 the night before. I only stayed for the first half of that game. It was never close. However, this game was close. Florida trailed 62-60 with 6:43 left before going on a 12-0 run. Green, named MVP of the tournament, had eight points during that span, including a 3-pointer with 1:52 left to cap the run and give the Gators a 72-62 lead, their biggest of the game. Not only did Florida leave New York City with the Coaches vs. Cancer title for 2005 but they were also ranked number 15 in the nation. People were starting to take notice.

After 17 games, the Gators were 17-0 and ranked number two in the country. People were wondering how long into the season they could take this undefeated run. Thanks to a 29 point game from Chris Lofton, the Tennessee Volunteers would end their run on January 21. On that same day, two other undefeated teams would fall. Duke lost to Georgetown and I was back at the Garden to see Pitt fall to St. John’s. The loss sent the Gators into a little bit of a tailspin. They would lose 5 of their next 10 games including two against South Carolina and another one against Tennessee. Once ranked number two, they fell to number 14 before picking it up again and going undefeated the rest of the season and winning the SEC Championship. The NCAA Tournament Committee handed them a number three seed in the Minneapolis Region and the rest is history…

Billy Donovan was well known for his early exits from the Big Dance. He took Florida to the Championship Game in 2000 but lost to the Flintstones and Michigan State. The Gators’ record in the next five tourneys was 3-5. They never made it out of the second round. People were starting to wonder if Florida was ever going to make it to a Sweet Sixteen. This group has proven all of the doubters wrong.

Does this mean that the Florida Gators are the best college basketball team in the country? That is up for great debate but they did win the necessary six games to become NCAA Tournament Champions. But more importantly than whom wins was the wild roller coaster ride that was taken to get to this point. I always believe that the final four weekend is the most boring of the tournament. What makes March Madness is the first two rounds of the tournament and as this year has proven, the Madness was taken right to the Elite Eight when George Mason shocked the world and ruined many brackets by beating UConn.

There is no doubt in my mind that the big winners in this tournament beside Florida were the Patriots from the Farifax, VA school. Their run captivated the very essence of what makes the Tournament so great. We all want to root for that Cinderella and this year, the typical midnight curfew of the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight was extended until the Final Four. There is no doubt in my mind that George Mason has become the new Gonzaga. About seven years ago, the school from Spokane was well known for John Stockton and their upsets in the tournament. Now, they are considered to be the best mid-major school in the nation and received a number three seed in this year’s tourney. If the Patriots get back to the tournament next year and win some games, it will be Gonzaga all over again and maybe we can finally kill the term mid-major.

You have read it from some of my fellow writers here on Sportszilla, the mid-major schools do well in the tournament for two reasons. First, their players stick around most of the time so they are fundamentally better and more mature than the hot shot talents that go to the big schools and leave after a year or two. Secondly, just as the United States has found out in the Olympics, basketball has become a global game. Foreign players come to college to harness their skills and become better players. Some of them have gone through the academy system in Europe so they already had been playing organized basketball for ten years. One of the biggest pieces of evidence you need to know that there is foreign influence in the college game; UCLA and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is from Cameroon.

This has been a memorable tournament so I thought I’ll wrap up with my top five moments. Feel free to debate of add any of your moments. To be honest, it was hard enough narrowing it down to five.

Number 5
LSU’s Darrel Mitchell made a long 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining to give the Tigers a 58-57 victory over Texas A&M in the second round of the Atlanta Regional.

Number 4
This will pain Zach but Rashad Anderson’s off-balance three pointer with just seconds to go to force overtime between UConn and Washington in the Sweet 16.

Number 3
Tennessee’s Chris Lofton takes a pass with 2.9 seconds left and rattled home a jumper barely inside the 3-point line to help the second-seeded Volunteers avoid a huge upset with a 63-61 victory over Winthrop.

Number 2
Texas’ Kenton Paulino hits a 3-pointer as time expired as Texas outlasted West Virginia 74-71 in the Sweet 16. Did I mention Pittsnogle nailed a three to tie with five seconds to go before Paulino's game winner?

Number 1
Jermaine Wallace’s 3-pointer was good with a split second left and little Northwestern State pulled off a shocker, rallying past Iowa 64-63 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. If you don't remember, just watch it below...

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