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Colleges

Current Gators play in shadow of repeat champs

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2014 at 09:52 AM

The University of Florida Gators, ranked No. 1 nationally and the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament, have won 26 consecutive games.

They were the first team in SEC history to go 18-0 in league play.

They have gone two entire seasons without losing a home game.

The accomplishments are staggering. As No. 1-seeded UF (32-2) prepares to face the No. 16 Albany Great Danes (19-14) in Thursday’s second-round game at Orlando’s Amway Center, these Gators are the obvious choice to be cutting down the nets on April 7 in Arlington, Texas.

Still, they can’t be considered the best team in program history – at least not yet.

Maybe never.

“Are those kind of statements even fair to make?’’ Gators senior center Patric Young said.

Probably not.

But the Gators, in a history-making season, constantly find themselves compared to the national championship UF teams of 2006 and 2007. Young and the other seniors were high school freshmen when UF’s core group of Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey blazed their own historic trail by winning consecutive national championships.

Those teams, along with the Christian Laettner-Bobby Hurley-Grant Hill teams at Duke in 1991 and 1992, are the only repeat national-title squads since John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty in the 1970s.

“I know we want to look at the records and draw these parallels, but I’m always a little bit guarded starting to compare one team to the next because it’s different,’’ Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “The personalities are different. The players are different. Everything is different.

“What these guys (current team) did in the regular season was really, really remarkable and special. I would hate to have that accomplishment all of a sudden be compared to something else because what they did was totally unique and special. It kind of stands on its own in the history of the program.’’

But the national-title Gator teams were amazing, too.

* 2006: The No. 3-seeded Gators (33-6) blitzed through the field, escaping Georgetown 57-53 in the region semifinals, stopping No. 1-seeded Villanova 75-62 to reach the Final Four, thrashing Cinderella team George Mason 73-58 in the national semifinal, then taking apart UCLA 73-57 in the title game.

* 2007: The Gators (35-5), the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, weathered tournament challenges from Purdue (74-67), Butler (65-57) and Oregon (85-77) before subduing a pair of 30-win teams – UCLA and Ohio State – at the Final Four.

Three players — Horford, Noah and Brewer — were selected among the top 10 in the NBA draft.

“I just think between those teams and this year’s team, the talent level is totally different,’’ Donovan said. “We had three guys taken in the top 10. Chris Richard (reserve) was a second-round pick. Taurean Green was a second-round pick. Marreese Speights, the next year, was a first-round pick.

“Plus, those guys went 18-0 over two straight years from the SEC tournament to the NCAA tournament. That’s unbelievable.’’

Donovan noticed some similarities. In Young, he sees Horford’s toughness and Noah’s lightning-rod personality. Casey Prather compares favorably to Brewer as an athletic wing player. Scottie Wilbekin runs the team in the manner of Green. Michael Frazier II can be a devastating long-range shooter, similar to Humphrey.

But, at least so far, there are also distinct differences.

In 2006 and 2007, the Gators had late-season walkabouts during the regular season, which created some worries. Once the postseason began, though, the switch turned back on and UF shifted back into business.

This season’s team had the most dominant and complete regular season of any in UF history.

“The things all those teams share is they all had a really, really good connection within the team,’’ Donovan said. “I think that’s critical. The way they play together and care about each other, it’s critical.’’

Togetherness might be the most notable characteristic of this season’s team.

“I think Florida and Wichita State are the two most connected and together teams in the tournament,’’ ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “The Gators just know how to share the ball and play to their strengths. It’s a pretty tight unit, senior-driven. You never know what might happen, but they are the safest pick to win it all, no question.’’

The Gators have been forged together through some tough times. They have lost in three consecutive NCAA region finals – the first modern team to do that – with the Final Four tantalizingly close.

Had they cashed in on most of those opportunities, the Gators would already be painted as one of the most dominant senior classes in NCAA history.

The region-final disappointments have banded the Gators together even more.

“It’s almost an honor to play a team like that,’’ said Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose Wildcats lost three times against the Gators this season, including a 61-60 decision in the SEC Tournament final. “When the game is close, they will not give you the game. If you don’t fight like heck, they’re taking it from you.

“That’s who they are and that’s who they have been all year. I don’t see it changing.’’

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO

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