Gator Bait

by April 03, 2007

by Jason Chatraw

ATLANTA — When Lang asked me to cover the title game from the Final Four, it felt like the first time I was assigned to interview Charles Barkley years ago. My editor at the time called me in a panic, asking me to write a feature with a one-on-one interview with Sir Charles. Later, I found out the reason why: my editor was interviewing the University of South Carolina cheerleaders and putting together a full-page spread complete with numerous photos. This time, Lang was hanging with an NBA All-Star. Sometimes leftovers aren’t so bad.

Florida junior Joakim Noah, the loved and hated face of Florida basketball, didn’t make much noise on the court in Florida’s 84-75 victory over Ohio State Monday night in the National Championship Game, but he sure made a lot of noise coming off the court with title tee and hat in hand.

“I told you, Dre,” he screamed. “I wouldn’t lie to you! I wouldn’t lie to you!”

Dre, the security man with flowing dreads from the same part of NYC as Noah, shouted back, “You’re a prophet, man! A prophet!” Dre admitted that he wouldn’t have been so impressed with a prediction of winning the title game — except for the fact that it was the fifth straight prediction from Noah that came true.

“I was here for the SEC Tournament and now the Final Four,” he said. “And Noah predicted a win every time. The man doesn’t lie.”

No word on whether Noah predicted his point total for the game, but surely he expected to produce more than eight points and three rebounds along with two assists. It didn’t matter to him after the victory.

“That was the most nervous I’ve ever been, sitting on the bench and unable to do anything about the game,” Noah said. “But I told my boys, Corey (Brewer) and Al (Horford), that they were going to have to get my back. We couldn’t double down on (Greg) Oden because (Ohio State has) such good 3-point shooters. So, somebody had to do a good job of containing Oden when I went out, and my boys did a great job.

“Right now, I’m just livin’ in the moment, like my coach told me to do.”

In both locker rooms, there were no outright declarations of turning pro, but the Florida locker room seemed pretty content on taking their two titles and running, even though they wouldn’t budge…especially Noah.

“You people are not going to get me to say anything about a three-peat or playing on the next level,” Noah said. “I won’t do it!”

A rather somber Oden was tight-lipped as well (not to mention that the guy could stand in for the low talker on Seinfeld).

REPORTER: “Greg, does this outcome at all affect your decision on whether you will go pro after this season?”

ODEN: “Absolutely not.”

Even Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is wondering what 2007-08 will hold for his stars. When asked if he thought Oden would return, Matta said, “I have no idea. My gut, I really don’t know. I think Gregory and I will sit down when we get back and kind of talk.” More like Matta will beg for Oden to stay.

If you close your eyes, Oden sounds like Shaq. Oden already looks old enough to be Shaq’s dad, and he’s got some of the big man’s dry wit.

Earlier in the week, one reporter fueled by Red Bull asked Oden if being in the Ohio State was the best job next to playing on the team. Oden deadpanned: “Being in the band is cool, but I think Brutus the Buckeye has the best job. He gets to hang out with the cheerleaders on all the road trips. Of course, he does have to dress up in a hot suit for the whole game.”

(Who knew dressing up with a giant nut on your head would have such fringe benefits?)

With the title on the line Monday night, Oden was playing like Shaq on the offensive end, getting the crowd on its feet with some rim-rattling dunks. But he’s not interested in hustling back on defense, something that the Gators capitalized on, notching some quick transition points while Oden was still preparing for his dismount from the rim.

But Oden didn’t want to dwell on his marquee performance. “It really doesn’t matter to me how well I played,” he said. “Winning is all that matters. If I play bad and we win, I’m happy. If I play good and we lose, I’m not.”

If winning is all that matters, could the NBA wait another year for Oden as he could return with Mike Conley Jr. to pick up where Florida left off? “There’s no question about it,” Oden said when asked if the team could be playing for the title next year.

If you were wondering who No. 15 was running around like he was the reigning M.O.P. in the early minutes of the game, you weren’t alone. That was Walter Hodge, maybe one of the only recognizable names you’ll hear for next year’s Florida team.

He made a couple of great defensive plays and then drained the only 3-pointer he took. In a flash, he set the tone — and just as quickly as he came, he was gone. But that’s what Hodge does. He gives you a little over five points per game and provides some solid defense.

After disposing of Ohio State, Florida head coach Billy Donovan will be faced with a big decision: Stay at Florida or bolt for Kentucky? Honestly, Donovan needs as much time to think about this as Allen Iverson does to decide to take a shot if he has the rock.

Kentucky has as many Final Four appearances in the last 20 years as Florida (3) and just as many titles (2). So, why bolt for the Bluegrass State? There’s just no good reason. Florida will rename its basketball arena after Donovan if he stays. At Kentucky, he’d always be chasing the legacy of Adolph F. Rupp.

Besides, Donovan owns Kentucky, and if he turns them down, he’ll only own them more. Now, that’s a legacy worth having.
In the meantime, Donovan is content to brag upon his current school and label it one of the best teams ever. “I think this team should go down as one of the best teams in college basketball history. Not as the most talented, and not on style points, but because they compassed what the word ‘team’ means. They did it the first year with no expectations, then they did it again with all the expectations.”