Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Gators' Defense Begins; UF Men's Basketball Team Might Learn How Hard It Is to Be Defending Champ

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Gators' Defense Begins; UF Men's Basketball Team Might Learn How Hard It Is to Be Defending Champ

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL DIROCCO

GAINESVILLE -- Lute Olson saw it every time his Arizona team took the court during the 1997-98 men's basketball season.

Wildcats opponents always seemed to foul a bit harder, scrap for loose balls more recklessly and maintain their intensity from the opening tip to the final horn.

They didn't just want to beat Arizona. They wanted to beat the defending NCAA champion. Badly.

Each defending champion faces that problem, and top-ranked Florida won't be any different this season as it tries to become the first team since Duke (1991-92) to win back-to-back national titles, starting with tonight's opener against Samford.

However, the Gators' situation is rare. Most teams lose players to graduation or to the NBA, but Florida returns all five starters and its top two reserves from its 2005-06 NCAA title squad. The last time a champion did that was in 1997-98, when Arizona returned all but one player from its 1996-97 title team.

The Wildcats reached the Elite Eight before being upset by Utah, ending one of the most exhausting seasons in Olson's career. So, if Florida is to repeat, it must handle being a target, deal with increased media attention and become immune to the expectations -- all things that Olson and his players faced during that 1997-98 season.

"You have a gigantic target on your chest because everyone wants to beat the national champion," said Olson, who's entering his 24th season as Arizona's coach. "Everyone comes back at you differently than they did when they played you before you won the thing. It's not possible for a team to take a day off where they come out and play less than their best basketball.

"The challenge of it, knowing you're going to be facing that kind of thing [every game] -- it's not like playing 11 or 12 games in football, you're playing 30-some games -- it wears on you."

Players must understand that they can't slack off in practice and can't come to the gym without an edge. They must be even more desperate than they were the season before, Olson said.

Florida coach Billy Donovan calls it dealing with the human element.

"Generally when people have success, the next thing that happens is a huge letdown," he said. "There's a lack of motivation in people. That's what we've got to battle against, and that's the challenge."

Based on what his players say, Donovan seems to be waging a good fight.

"When I look at tape from last season, I see when we used to play at the beginning of the year, even in the exhibition season, how hungry we were, how on edge we were," junior center Joakim Noah said. "We can't lose that."

Donovan is trying to avoid that by using more peer- pressure drills, but at the same time making practice more enjoyable. That way, players won't focus on trying to repeat.

Donovan also is trying to keep the media onslaught away from players, especially Noah, who also draws international attention because he's the son of former French Open champion Yannick Noah and a Swedish model. …

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