Gators attempting to forget history in effort to repeat

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- On Monday, for the first time since last spring, Florida forward Chris Richard cracked.

The topic of the Gators winning another NCAA title had qualified as taboo. Florida's players and coaches deflected the talk all season, instead falling back on phrases such as "living in the moment," or "last year doesn't matter now," or "attacking this title," instead of defending the 2006 crown.


But Monday, there was Richard, one of the team's three seniors, daring to discuss the legacy this team could leave with four more victories. The calendar gives him permission - after all, it's March, when titles are won and legacies created. And those four victories need to come within the next two weeks, starting tonight in a Midwest Regional semifinal against Butler. No. 3 seed Oregon and seventh seed Nevada-Las Vegas play in the regional's second game.

"We've got a chance to win back-to-back national championships," he said. "That's a pretty special thing that not many people have done."


So special that 14 tournaments have passed since a team raised the title plaque for a second consecutive year. Duke won back-to-back crowns in 1991 and '92, and became the sixth school to turn the trick and the first since 1973.

The Gators haven't looked title-worthy so far this tournament. Seeded first in their region, they trailed for much of the first half against 16th seed Jackson State before winning, 112-69. In round two, ninth seed Purdue - fourth in the Big Ten - hung tough for 37 minutes before forward Al Horford helped Florida pull away for a 74-67 victory.

Florida's title defense continues this weekend in St. Louis. And those who've faced the Gators say they possess that mandatory combination - talent and toughness - needed to win.

The back-to-back feat is so tough that most defending champs don't even sniff title No. 2. Take the five champs before Florida, for instance. Duke won in 2001, Maryland in '02 and Syracuse in '03, but each lost in the Sweet 16 the next season. Connecticut won it all in '04 and North Carolina in '05, but each lost in the second round the next season.

The most recent champion to even make it back to the Final Four the next season was 2000 titlist Michigan State.

Since the Blue Devils in the early 1990s, Kentucky came the closest to repeating. The Wildcats won in 1996 and '98, but fell to Arizona in overtime in the final in '97.

After that victory, Arizona entered '98 in a spot similar to the Gators in 2007. All five starters returned, including future NBA point guard Mike Bibby and reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player Miles Simon.

For weeks, Florida's players have dealt with more media exposure, more fan interest - positive and negative for both. They've lived through scenes such as the one described by Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, an assistant at Duke in 1992: The Blue Devils arrived for a game at Maryland to find more fans awaiting their bus to jeer than to cheer for the Terps' bus.


"At the beginning of the season, we would throw that word around - 'expectations,'" Florida's Joakim Noah said. "But it's different when you go through it. This year, people don't really understand what we're going through."

Horford and Noah played well last weekend, and with three guard-oriented teams waiting in St. Louis, both must keep dominating to launch Florida into the Final Four.

So, it seems, most of the ingredients are there for Florida. From here, luck plays a part: Duke got the famous Hill-to-Laettner buzzer-beater in the regional final against Kentucky and soared, while Arizona ran into a junk defense and fell.

That talent-toughness tandem is important, too. And on that front, Florida has enough to join the back-to-back club, to create a legacy it won't hesitate to discuss.

"The first one will always be special," Richard said. "Another would be even more special."

Dave Curtis writes for the Orlando Sentinel.