ATLANTA – No one had to tell the Florida Gators when and where to go because muscle memory brought them back to the black stage sitting in the middle of the Georgia Dome. Corey Brewer held onto Joakim Noah, and Noah held onto Jack Berry, and that goofy, hokey network television video and song, "One Shining Moment," started to flicker on the video board high above the floor.
"The ball is tipped," Noah started singing, and now, these Gators were mouthing the words with him in their own goofy, hokey moment. Against all odds, the core of the national champions had come back to secure a spot as one of college basketball's forever teams. They had pounded the Ohio State Buckeyes, 84-75, and here they sat, one by one, holding onto this season, this team, a little longer.
"Almost makes you want to cry," Brewer said of that sappy song. "That's why you love college basketball."
For two seasons, these kids dared to make a coach's sport about the players again. They gave everyone a standard, a reference point, for greatness within the game. In a sport where the stars are here today, gone tomorrow, Noah, Brewer and Al Horford demonstrated a rare staying power. A year ago, they had come out of nowhere to win the national title. This time, the eyes of the sport seldom strayed.
"For Billy," Bill Donovan Sr. said courtside of his son and Florida's coach, "this was the much tougher title to win."
Soon, there would be the most futile chant in tournament history booming out of the Gator faithful – "One more year … One more year." Those had to be the greediest words of the basketball season. Florida fans were lucky to get Brewer, Horford and Noah back as juniors, but seniors? Shame on them for bringing it up. As much as anyone, these kids deserve to get out, get paid and end their servitude as pawns for the NCAA's billion-dollar television package.
The Buckeyes never did find a way to withstand the Gators' weapons. Noah, the All-American, would be held to eight points, but this Florida team kept coming and coming and coming. Horford had 18 points and 12 rebounds, the guards, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey, lobbed a combined seven of 10 three-pointers and Corey Brewer delivered the Most Outstanding Player performance in the Final Four.
The Gators are the sixth school in tournament history to repeat as champions, inspiring Billy Donovan to declare that his squad earned the right "to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time."
Truth be told, there were better teams in the 1980s who never won multiple titles – the Houston Cougars and Georgetown Hoyas, for instance – but that was because early NBA draft entry didn't destroy programs with the regularity that it does now. Kids stayed together, chased titles, left lasting legacies. No more.
"Kids don't stay long enough when they have a lot of success," Donovan said. "I don't know what the future holds for any of our guys. Twenty years ago, they'd all be coming back. There would be none of those issues. The whole thing would start. Can you three-peat?"
Not anymore. For that, there was a feeling of finality in the Georgia Dome. This was graduation day for Florida, beginning with Brewer, Horford and Noah who will be first-round picks in the NBA draft in June. More and more, there's a sense that this is goodbye for Donovan, too.
The coronation awaits in Lexington, Ky., where Donovan can graduate to the highest throne in the sport. The Gators belong to him, but by Wednesday, people in Gainesville will be talking about spring football again. Donovan has a chance to be one of the greatest coaches in college history, what with two national titles before his 42nd birthday.
He's had the chance to say that he'll be back at Florida, but he wouldn't do it. They were chanting, "Billy … Billy," late Monday night, and his father, laughed, and said, "They weren't chanting that five years ago. They didn't think he knew what he was doing."
Now, Donovan has delivered the Gators to the top of the sport, delivered them into historical context. Still, this is one of the modern era's great accomplishments, winning consecutive titles, but this isn't one of history's greatest teams. Because of early entry, college basketball's talent pool has been too diluted. The rest of the landscape allowed for these Gators to dominate at an even higher plane.
When Duke won its back-to-back crown in 1992, there was never a thought that Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley would leave school early. Times have changed. Among young players, there's a status, a credibility, that comes with leaving school early. Everyone else cashed in, not the Gators.
"I'm hoping these kids can be a source of inspiration, strength, for some of these kids that say, 'I really don't want to go, but I'm worried about what's going to happen,' " Donovan said.
Through it all, this felt like graduation night at the Georgia Dome. The coach has the choice of a lifetime to make about his old Kentucky home, but these kids are gone now. They did their time, their championship duty, but before they left the floor, they stopped to sing a sappy song together. For the kids who deferred millions of dollars, the moment moved them to tears. Against all odds, they had stayed together and gone the distance again. Finally, Florida is a forever team.