When they were Kings
2007 In Atlanta, Georgia the University of Florida Gators hoisted their second consecutive NCAA Championship trophy. Now Oklahoma City Thunder coach, Billy Donovan, had done what so many of his predecessors hadn’t, win back to back NCAA championships. Of his contemporaries stood, Coach K is the only other coach in the modern to achieve this feat at Duke in 1991 and 1992 respectively.
All respect given to Coach K, but Duke is Duke, the program can stand on it’s own prestige as probably the most popular college basketball program. What Donovan did was special, Florida was never supposed to be this good, but ten years ago they were that and much more.
Not your grandfather’s Gators
When most of us think about the University of Florida we think about SEC football, but for some reason the hoops program didn’t get the memo. If history is to be considered correctly, this was at the beginning of Tebow-mania, so it goes without saying the campus wide and national attention was fixated on the football program.
Florida’s hoop program on the other hand was one mired in mediocrity and turmoil in the pre and post Coach Lon Kruger era. Before Donovan, Florida’s only noteworthy accomplishment was their first Final Four following a dramatic victory over UConn where Donyell Marshall missed two free throws with no time on the clock to force overtime, where the Gators eventually prevailed.
Florida would follow that season with a first round exit, so in 1998 Donovan was brought in to lead the program. Donovan’s first two seasons were rocky, but being the master recruiter he was, he soon turned the program into a regular post-season fixture and eventually one of the strongest teams in the SEC. Although he hadn’t reached the Final Four, he produced a plethora of quality players that went on to be great NBA pros. Some noteworthy members were Jason Williams, David Lee, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and Matt Bonner. 2004 would be the year all of that would change.
The 2004 recruits arrive
2004 would prove to be Donovan’s best recruiting class yet, in one off season he was able to ink the likes of Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Joakim Noah and Al Hortford. all of which would become NBA prospects. Although the team suffered a disappointing second round exit to Vilanova, the groundwork was set for success.
Back to Back Champions
In 2005-06 the Gators entered the NCAA tournament as a #3 seed and took the contest by storm. There, the Gators defeated the No. 7 seed Georgetown Hoyas and upset the No. 1 seed Villanova Wildcats 75–62 to avenge their loss in the previous year’s tournament and move on to their second Final Four under Donovan. Florida then defeated the upstart George Mason Patriots, the No. 11 seed from the Washington, D.C. regional, by a score of 73–58 in the national semifinals in Indianapolis. On April 3, 2006, the Gators defeated the UCLA Bruins 73–57 in the national final to win the school’s first men’s basketball NCAA Championship.
The next season the Gators would have the entire league on notice as the reigning #1 seed and returning all five starters. After another SEC title, they would also enter the NCAA Tournament as the #1 seed and easily they advanced to the Final Four after wins in the regional against No. 5 seed Butler and No. 3 seed Oregon. In a rematch of the 2006 title game, the Gators again eliminated the UCLA Bruins in the national semifinal. Florida defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes 84–75, in a rematch of a game they won 86–60 three months earlier
All Five starters take their talents to the NBA
There were rumors that Brewer, Noah, Hortford and Green, now juniors would come back one more year to win an elusive third consecutive championship, a feat that hadn’t been done since UCLA in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Eventually the allure of playing professional basketball prevailed and all four declared for the draft to join senior teammate Chris Richard.
In the 2007 NBA Draft all five went on to be drafted and so began a new chapter. Whether they lived up to the hype is greatly debatable, but one thing is for sure, the Fab ’04 Class was one college basketball royalty.
#3 – Al Hortford (Atlanta Hawks)
#7 – Corey Brewer (Minnesota Timberwolves)
#9 – Joakim Noah (Chicago Bulls)
#41 – Chris Richard (Minnessota Timberwolves)
#52 – Taurean Green (Portland Trailblazers)