Now that the celebration is over and the millionth “Greatest Team Ever” article has been finished, I come bearing some humbling news for the Tar Heels:
Your legacy is nowhere near the level so many hyperbolic writers are making it out to be. In fact, the Florida Gators have been there and done that this decade—twice.
Essentially, you are the greatest champions to come along in the last two years.
In our 30-second attention span sports world, every shot is the greatest, every champion is the best, every winning coach is a legend or genius. Everybody wants to crown the G.O.A.T. these days.
Until the following year, that is.
All I keep hearing and reading is, “When was the last time we saw domination like this?” And, to a lesser extent, “When is the last time such decorated players bypassed the NBA to win an NCAA Championship?”
The answer is simple: 2006, and then again in 2007, when “the Gator boys”—as Joakim Noah once referred to his team—ripped through the tournament in back-to-back years.
This is not to say UNC’s domination in '09 wasn't impressive. It was.
The Heels were unchallenged for three weeks, and the team’s focus and sheer athleticism simply overwhelmed opponents.
That said, it’s hard for me to understand why the love-fest for the Tar Heels can possibly co-exist with what nearly everyone agrees was the most disappointing and boring tournament ever.
Worst tournament + Weakened field = Greatest champion. Huh?
For some perspective, let’s take a look at the context and some numbers for each Tar Heel and Gator team.
While North Carolina’s run this season was most similar to the Gators’ second title run in ’07, Florida’s first championship in 2006 is enough to put North Carolina’s accomplishment behind the Gators’.
As a three-seed in ’06, Florida dismantled their opponents, with the exception of a nail-biter against Georgetown that the Gators won by four.
They took down top-seeded Villanova by 13, stomped a Cinderella George Mason team by 15, and then smothered UCLA in the championship, winning by 16 after leading at the half by 11.
For the tournament, the Gators were +96 in scoring margin.
This year, the Tar Heels ran over teams in similar fashion, racking up a +121 scoring margin of their opponents.
But when matched up with the Gators’ accomplishment, the Tar Heels’ title pales in comparison.
Yes, UNC put up 25 more total points on its opponents than Florida, but take out the first round games and the numbers go to UNC +78, Florida +70.
In the final three games, the toughest of the competition, the Gators were +44 to UNC’s +43.
But here is the kicker: Florida did it with four sophomores and a junior in the starting lineup. The lone senior to play for that Gator squad, Adrian Moss, averaged 11 minutes and a mere 3.1 points per game.
To those who suggest the Gators just “got hot at the right time,” as many have, remember that this team began the year going 17-0 and was ranked second in the nation halfway through January.
If anything, the team took a late season dip, losing three of their last five regular season games, and had to recover. Their season-ending record was 33-6—not exactly Cinderella stuff.
Meanwhile, despite getting the overall No. 1 seed in the ’08 tournament, the Tar Heels were thrashed by Kansas 84-66 in the Final Four.
In addition to tournament experience, upperclassmen leadership, and an arguably weaker tournament field, the Heels also had serious payback on their minds—four things the Gators never had the luxury of.
Then, of course, there is the Gators’ 2007 season, which is eerily similar to the Heels’ 2009 season.
1.) Returned a handful of players who easily could have headed to the NBA the year before.
2.) Started and ended the year ranked No. 1, with the Tar Heels finishing at 34-4 and the Gators finishing at 33-5.
3.) Got their biggest tournament scares from No. 9 seeds, as Purdue gave Florida problems very late into the game while LSU held a slim lead over UNC with under five minutes to go.
4.) Won the title game against a Big Ten opponent they each crushed earlier in the season (the Gators beat Ohio State by 26 in a December meeting).
5.) Featured some colorful personalities renowned for their dancing skills, with Dancing Danny Green taking on the role for the Heels while Joakim Noah served up some of the strangest moves on the planet.
The big difference, from this observer’s point of view, is that the Gators pulled off a second championship with a huge target on their backs—and the pressure that comes along with repeating as champions, which is exactly why it’s so rarely done.
The 2007 Final Four was a clash of the titans. Check current NBA rosters for a list of kids from those Georgetown, Ohio State, UCLA, and Florida teams.
For the Gators to get through that gauntlet, particularly against a payback-minded UCLA team, sets them apart as one of the greatest champions not only in recent memory but in all-time history.
It’s hard to decide which Gator championship is more impressive, but back-to-back, they easily out-do any champion of my lifetime.
As a final thought: North Carolina has one of the greatest basketball legacies in the history of the sport. Football is a mere afterthought in that basketball state. Banners cram the Dean Smith Center, and the school itself can be used as a history lesson about college basketball.
At Florida, football is god. Basketball was non-existent (with apologies to Lon Kruger’s fluke Final Four team) until Billy Donovan came to town.
Yet four self-proclaimed goofballs (“the 04’s” as they were known) passed on the legacy of other programs and made history for themselves at the University of Florida.
Add it all together, and for me personally, the tale of the 2009 Tar Heels doesn’t even come close to the Gators’ implausible story.