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AFTER TONIGHT: LATER, GATORS?

Byline: STEVE DILBECK

ATLANTA - It's the last college basketball game of the year, but there's even greater finality this go-round.

This is the end of the Florida Gators as we know them. One starter will definitely leave, and likely four. And maybe even their coach.

It has been some two-year run for the Gators. Avictory tonight against Ohio State would net consecutive NCAA titles, which these days qualifies as a college dynasty.

That basketball's Division I title game would feature the same two schools as college football's BCS game seems wholly uninspiring, if not downright dull.

Yet it's hard to find failings with this Gators basketball team. After they defeated UCLA in last year's title game, it was just sort of understood their threesophomore stars would forego their last two years of college eligibility to bathe in NBA riches.

Forward Joakim Noah, center Al Horford and forward Corey Brewer, all juniors, can hardly see their names in print without the tag line, "future NBA lottery picks."

That they met after the season and decided to return was stunning. In today's game, unprecedented.

And now here they are on the verge of a second title, feeling very much like young men who made a difficult but very correct decision.

"I will never, ever, regret coming back to school," Noah said. "Not a lot of college players have experienced what we have as a team.

"We've gone through so much in the matter of 16months, it's crazy. This whole experience, this whole circus, has made us tighter as a unit -- and I appreciate that."

Noah and Horford are the sons of former professional athletes and could more easily afford to pass on immediate wealth than Brewer. Still, they met and decided as a group that they wanted to come back for at least one more year, to try and experience another championship run.

"Every decision is based on a young man and his family and how they feel," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I'm not sitting there saying that to leave early is a bad thing or it's the wrong thing or it's the right thing. It's really a situation where it's what's in your heart.

"I hope these guys can be a great source of strength, role models, someone to reflect back on with a young player that maybe has that type of decision to make.

"The reasons they chose were basically one reason only: their happiness and joy of playing with one another."

Only this time, senior guard Lee Humphrey will graduate. Brewer, whose father is ill, is also likely to exit. And once those two break up the ol' gang, Noah and Horford are expected to follow suit.

"We're just having a good time," Brewer said. "We haven't really thought about what's going to happen in the future. It's all about 40minutes and we could be national champions again."

Donovan is another unexpectedly uncertain piece. He is reportedly being wooed by Kentucky, a legendary program where he spent fiveyears as an assistant coach to Rick Pitino. And Kentucky is offering a lot more greenbacks than bluegrass.

Donovan and his Gators arefocused on the task at hand, trying to work up some serious interest in defeating an Ohio State team they already pummeled by 26points in December.

"I don't know if there's a lot of time in reflecting as much as there is a lot of time put into preparation," Donovan said.

History will come calling with victory tonight, but a key to Florida's success this season has been the Gators' ability to lock in on the moment.

Ask Noah about the significance of becoming the first college basketball team torepeat since Duke in 1991-92 and he quickly dismisses the notion.

"I feel like that's a question that we should talk about after the game, if things go our way," he said. "Right now we realize it's not about history. We have to play basketball for 40 minutes and focus on the task at hand."

This approach was something of a learning process for the Gators, who did not always find everything going to their liking this season.

The Gators looked a lot like the championship Lakers teams earlier this decade, a team that would rise to the challenge when presented, which mostly meant the postseason.

There were times you could have watched the Lakers during the 2002-03 season and almost been forced to turn away, their play so uninspiring. Then the postseason arrived, they turned it up and almost cruised to another title.

Under enormous pressure and scrutiny, dealing with increased expectations and getting every opponent's best shot, there were moments this season when it might have seemed like those Gators who returned might have regretted it.

Florida lost two of threegames early in the season, responded with a 17- game winning streak, and then lostthree of four.

But the stumbles seemed tocatch their attention. The Gators have won nine in a row and are again playing with the kind of confidence only championships can bring.

Against UCLA on Saturday, even when they trailed early and struggled to find their game in the first half, there was always a sense the Gators could get the big basket, the big stop, the big play when needed.

Ohio State will no doubt offer a more serious test than in that December meeting. Back then, Buckeyes center Greg Oden had just returned from injury. And it should be noted that Oden and Buckeyes point guard Mike Conley Jr., who won three Indiana high school titles together, haven't lost a postseason game in 1,479 days.

Oden and Conley lead a talented freshman class for Ohio State. Head coach Thad Matta, asked Sunday if he could imagine another team like Florida winning a title and then having three potential NBA lottery picks decide to return, was quick to reply: "Yeah, hopefully next year."

This year, however, has been about the Gators. About a team, that against great odds, returned all five starters.

A team that tonight, win or lose, will find some finality to one great college basketball run.

stephen.dilbeck@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3607

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Photo:

With four juniors contemplating the NBA draft and their coach being wooed by Kentucky, this could be the Gators' last dance.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Box:

NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 2, 2007
Words:1058
Previous Article:GETTING THE POINTS A PRIORITY FOR UCLA.
Next Article:ODEN HAS ALL THE MOVES OSU CENTER A BIG PRESENCE ON COURT.


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