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March 30, 2007"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" is how William Shakespeare put it in King Henry IV.
"We made it last year with no expectations, and we made it back this year with great expectations. It's been a different road traveled," is how Billy Donovan put it about the Final IV.
The point is backing up a championship is tough stuff. But here stand the Florida Gators, on the verge of back-to-back national championships. It's a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Duke turned the trick in 1992.
And as sweet as the first one was, the players seem to understand this one potentially means more.
"Last year our team motto was Ph.D. ? that stands for poor, hungry and driven," junior center Joakim Noah said. "This year, I feel like it's the same thing. We still have to have that Ph.D., but there has been so much more thrown at us.
"I think that we are still hungry, and we still have a lot to prove to ourselves. I just feel like we've gone through so much this year that it would be an unbelievable feeling to win another national championship. But we realize that our total focus has to be on UCLA."
The Gators (33-5), who take on the Bruins (30-5) in the late game on Saturday, have been almost unstoppable when totally focused this season. Witness the SEC tournament played at the Georgia Dome, site of the Final Four. UF came in having lost three of its past five games but got on a roll. It beat Georgia 74-57 in the quarterfinals and crushed Ole Miss by 21 in the semifinals. Even a hot Arkansas team that had won five in a row was no match in the final, getting blown out 77-56.
Suddenly a Florida team that had been generating a lot of questions had all of the answers.
"They have supreme confidence combined with skill and athleticism that nobody else can boast," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "They've been the marked team in the nation all season; everyone was more excited about playing Florida than any other team. They've had the bull's-eye and handled it extremely well."
"Last year, we were sort of under the radar," junior point guard Taurean Green said. "We came out going at everybody and giving them our best shot. This year, we were ranked high in the polls and everybody had high expectations for us. We're getting everyone's best shot. We've had to grind games out.
"We can tell that it's been a lot more difficult, and we've had to go on a different path than we did last year."
A path wrought with the unfailing weight of expectations. Before the season began there even was talk of Florida running the table and becoming the first team to go undefeated since Indiana in 1976. That talk was over before November was even out with a loss to Kansas in the Las Vegas Invitational.
December started on a sour note, too, with a loss at unranked Florida State. People forget, though, that Corey Brewer wasn't available for that game. He sat out because of a bout with mononucleosis.
Really, you can explain away all of the Florida losses since the Kansas game. The three SEC losses all came on the road after the Gators had clinched the East. Ideally they'd have that "total focus" that Noah mentioned all of the time, but they do seem to focus long enough when it matters most.
"I remember being in this same room a month ago, when we lost three games, and everybody was like, 'What's wrong with this team?' and, 'This team is going to lose in the first or second round,' " Noah said. "I feel like we've played in some tough battles, but I feel like we can still play better.
"When you step on the court there's no lying. It's not predictions or talking. When you step between those lines, you have to go out there and play the game. That's something we've been doing since we were little kids. In the end, you just have to go out there and play basketball. I think that we realize that. That's our strength."
Noah could have walked away last season. It's possible he would have been the first player taken in the NBA Draft. Likewise, classmates Brewer and Al Horford also almost assuredly would have gone in the first round. But all three decided to return for their junior season.
They stayed together, and Donovan has kept them playing unselfishly. All five starters average in double figures. It's a large part of what makes Florida so difficult to beat.
"They're all good kids, so it wasn't overly hard, but we had to guard against the human elements of selfishness and complacency, a lack of motivation," Donovan said. "We're all human ? these kids are not machines or robots. They have ups and downs, good days and bad days. You go through these things, but you try to make them aware of the human element so they can all reach their greatest potential and reach the team's highest potential.
"It's no different from last year. 'Let's be the best we can be, and let's not let these things take away from our team and who we want to be.' "
To be or not to be the national champion is the question. We'll know the answer soon enough.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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