It has been 14 years since Florida was the surprising winner of the 2006 NCAA basketball national championship. The Gators were a No. 3 seed going into the tournament and Florida had been knocked off on the first weekend for five consecutive seasons under Billy Donovan.
Today is the anniversary of UF’s first national basketball title. And as the second part of our series, we asked Donovan for a little oral history on that season.
Here’s Billy D:
“Going into the year, a big thing for the team was that Joakim Noah was a little frustrated because Al Horford and Corey Brewer and Taurean Green had played a lot but he had not. He and I met and I told him, ‘David Lee is gone so you have a tremendous opportunity. Take advantage of it.’ And he worked hard all summer to do just that.
“We started practice and it wasn’t long before I realized, ‘We have a chance to be pretty good here.’ It was a very unselfish group, great length. We could do a lot of different things.”
It started right away with a championship in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament. After 17 straight wins to start the season, Donovan’s Gators — who started the season unranked — were second in the nation in the Associated Press poll.
“We win 17 in a row, then we hit the skids a little bit in the middle of the season. But I think the big thing that happened for us was that (senior) Adrian Moss wasn’t getting to play and he was getting really upset at Noah and Horford. He got on them about the fact that there wasn’t a lot of attention to detail with those guys.
“We had just lost at Alabama and (Richard) Hendrix had just killed us (17 rebounds). Moss kind of called those guys out in a team meeting. They basically stepped up after that and said, ‘You’re right. We’ve got to be better.’
“(Moss) was really impactful leadership-wise there. It really kind of galvanized our team. I had told him, ‘You want to play but you’re not going to play as much as you want. You want to be a coach when you’re done. You’ve got to help us in another way.’ I remember after we won to go to the Final Four, Moss grabbed me and said, ‘I get it now. I see what you’ve been telling me all year.’ “
Florida won the SEC Tournament, but many of the questions after that win in Nashville over South Carolina revolved around the lack of success in the NCAA Tournament the previous five years.
The Gators got out of the first weekend with two easy wins over South Alabama and Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Jacksonville. But one of the keys to momentum being on UF’s side was a win at Kentucky to close the regular season.
“We beat Kentucky and we really started playing well. That was one thing that really helped us was going to Kentucky and beating them.”
In the Sweet 16 in Minneapolis, Florida would face Georgetown.
“I was really concerned because the game before ours Villanova beat Boston College in overtime and we were in the locker room for an hour longer than normal. You could hear a pin drop. Noah was pacing back and forth. I knew these guys really wanted to get out there and play, but I was concerned about them having to wait so long.”
Florida won the game thanks to an acrobatic and-one basket by Corey Brewer.
“Corey throws that ball in and then Georgetown ran a great play, a screen, and Brewer falls down. But they missed the shot. You realize in those moments how quickly things can change.”
Florida beat Villanova in the Elite Eight and Cinderella George Mason in the Final Four. That meant a date with storied UCLA for the national title. Donovan’s pregame speech when he told his players to “live in the moment” was carried on TV by CBS from the locker room.
“There was this thing where they were trying — ESPN and CBS — before the season about more, more, more access. The further you went, the more they wanted. CBS was asking for footage of me talking to the team.
“I didn’t want to do anything strategic but I wanted to be authentic, too. We had talked all year about going on to the next play, no matter what happens. But once (CBS) left, I was able to do the game planning.”
Florida dominated UCLA, winning 73-57. Noah, the guy who couldn’t get off the bench the year before, was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. In the six games of the NCAA Tournament, Noah scored 97 points, had 57 rebounds and 29 blocked shots.
And so, the confetti rain finally happened for Donovan and the Gators.
“There are so many people you think about standing there, different things that happen in your life and you realize how little control you have. You spend so much time doing your job and so many people are so important along the way. My wife, my parents, Coach (Rick) Pitino, they were all there.
“When we lost to Michigan State (in the 2000 final), you wonder if you’re going to get back. Some of the losses, like Manhattan (first round, 2004), you can’t help but think we’re a long way away from getting back.
“I remember Dan Marino said something about going to the Super Bowl as a rookie and thinking he would be back and never getting there. I wondered if I’d ever get an opportunity again.
“It was an unbelievable year.”