Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Back in Final Four

It is the same result but a very different way of getting there. The Florida Gators are back in the Final Four but their trip to Atlanta in 2007 is very different than their trip to Indianapolis in 2006. What they’re hoping for is the same finish, a national title next Monday.

This time around though, Florida has come from behind in each game and looks vulnerable. It has a very different feel to it. It’s not a magical ride, but rather a grind as Florida feels the heat as the defending champion.

“Keep hating,” Joakim Noah shouted at the end of the win over Oregon in the regional semi-final in St. Louis. “We win, we eat,” Noah screamed to the approval of the Gator fans in attendance.

Florida is playing the “hated” card to perfection.

“It was a lot harder this year because night in and night out, we got people’s best shot. We’ve had to adjust and it’s just been really tough,” Corey Brewer said. “It’s been really rewarding because we’ve got the same five guys back and basically the same team. We just love playing with each other, and it feels so good to get back to the Final Four.”

Remember, this is a team that decided to come back together foregoing professional basketball and the millions of dollars that entails to play together again, to enjoy college and to try and win a championship, again. Getting to the Final Four could be enough, but this group has tasted the title and wants it again.

They routed UCLA in the title game last year and they draw the Bruins in the semi-finals this year. UCLA is a very formidable opponent, again particularly when you look at the match-ups on the perimeter and how they’ll try to defend Noah and Al Horford inside. The Bruins can also run so it’s a tough match for Florida.

I’ve said this all along and it was evident again against Oregon. When Florida plays the way they’re supposed to, they’re nearly unbeatable. While Horford carried them in the regional semi’s, it was Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green carrying the load in the finals. Humphrey had seven three pointers and 23 points, enroute to becoming the all time three point scorer in Florida history. Green was hot early, forcing the Duck’s defense to cover the 3-point line and keeping the lane from being clogged.

It’s hard not to like this Florida team. Billy Donovan has done a masterful job of keeping them grounded all year long and they’re still saying the right things when it comes to what their goals are. They don’t have that bright eyed “Wow this is neat” exuberance of last year, but it’s been replaced with a steely determination. They’ll need it this week against UCLA.

They’ll be the late game Saturday night in Atlanta.