Sports

Florida's 2007 repeat came in 'totally different environment' than UConn is facing at Final Four

Billy Donovan hasn’t watched many UConn games. He doesn’t have the time while coaching the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.

But he's seen enough to know the Huskies' bid to repeat as national champions — they are trying to become the first since Donovan's Florida team in 2007 to do so — is happening in "a totally different environment."

For starters, there’s an abundance of talent and experience available through the NCAA transfer portal. There’s also name, image and likeness money available to potentially keep guys on campus longer than what had been the norm.

It’s a seismic shift that comes with a new set of challenges for sure.

It also might provide a path for champs like UConn to rebuild quickly and have a legit shot at winning it all again — even with a revolving group of guys.

“Certainly a different time with the way college basketball has changed from that perspective,” Donovan said. “(The Huskies) obviously had to change their starting lineup. It’s not the same exact team that won it last year. They’ve got certainly some pieces from the previous year, but they’re also starting two or three different guys as well.”

Indeed, UConn lost its top two scorers from last season – forward Adama Sanogo and guard Jordan Hawkins – but was able to replace some of their combined 33 points and 11 rebounds a game by signing graduate transfer and former Rutgers and Loyola-Maryland starter Cam Spencer.

The Huskies returned point guard Tristen Newton, forward Alex Karaban and center Donovan Clingan to form the core of coach Dan Hurley’s roster. With the trio leading the way, UConn (35-3, 18-2 Big East) has been even better this time around.

The Huskies have won 11 in a row and 25 of 26 entering Saturday night's matchup against fourth-seeded Alabama in one semifinal in Glendale, Arizona, and they've won four NCAA Tournament games by an average of 28 points.

“If I wasn’t picking with my heart, I would have picked them to win the whole thing in my bracket,” said Lee Humphrey, a sharp-shooting guard on Florida’s title teams who is now a TV analyst for games. “I couldn’t pull for them since we’re the last team to repeat. But it’s going to be tough for anybody to knock them off.”

UConn is the first champion to return to the Final Four since Florida in 2007, which shows just how daunting a task it has been for decades.

Before the Gators, Michigan State (2001), Kentucky (1997), Arkansas (1995) and Duke (1992) also accomplished the feat. The Spartans got back despite losing stars Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves; the Wildcats pulled it off with their top three scorers — Antoine Walker, Tony Delk and Walter McCarty — in the NBA.

Florida and Duke were the only ones of that group to cut down the nets on college basketball's ultimate stage again.

“The second time I feel like it’s tougher,” said Boston Celtics forward Al Horford, who won back-to-back titles at Florida under Donovan. “For (the Huskies), they’ve kind of cruised through it, it seems like.

“For us, personally, the second time was much tougher. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of expectation. And, yeah, it was definitely more challenging.”

Donovan went to great lengths to keep his guys on edge after Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer delayed NBA money to stay in school and attempt a rare repeat alongside fellow starters Taurean Green and Humphrey.

The coach scheduled several sports celebrities to speak to the team, including NBA legend Jerry West, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

He showed clips from movies and sporting events in hopes of providing inspiration. He relayed stories about all-time greats like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras and Tiger Woods. He even brought in renowned sociology professor Harry Edwards.

But his players remember one motivational tactic above all others: when Donovan showed up in the locker room wearing a police uniform minutes before a game at Auburn. Donovan insists he just wore a hat, but players remember a jacket, badge, baton and handcuffs.

Regardless, the message was clear: “Officer Bill” wanted the Gators to be like police breaking up a party. The team responded with a resounding victory.

“Coach Donovan was great at keeping everyone focused,” Humphrey said. “It was the daunting task of doing what you already accomplished and getting everybody’s best shot every night.”

Humphrey was quick to point out how different UConn’s plight has been. The Huskies have Spencer (14.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists) and freshman Stephon Castle (10.7 points, 4.7 rebounds) contributing way more than any newcomer the Gators had in 2007 or the Blue Devils had in 1992.

“It’s fresh for a lot of their guys, and it’s brand new for them,” Humphrey said. “It’s not like they’re really defending anything.”

Florida probably would have been lost without Horford, Noah or Brewer, and surely wouldn’t have been able to adequately replace Green or Humphrey, who holds the record for the most 3-pointers made (47) in NCAA Tournament history.

“It’s a totally different environment,” Donovan said. “For us, we kind of had the same core group come back two years in a row.”

So did Duke, which returned the majority of its team after winning it all in 1991. Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Thomas Hill, Brian Davis and Antonio Lang all stayed and gave coach Mike Krzyzewski his second of five national championships.

That kind of roster retention, which Florida enjoyed in 2007, seemed impossible just a few years back when one-and-done college stars typically jumped at NBA riches. But NIL has been a game-changer — imagine what Noah and Laettner would earn today — and laxed transfer rules have player movement at an all-time high. It's leveled the field, closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and created hope for everyone — even those in varying stages of rebuilds.

“Regardless of the circumstances, it’s always challenging,” Horford said. “There’s different eras of the game and you’re always going to deal with different adversities.

“Right now, I feel like UConn as a program is doing a great job of handling the transfer portal, the players they have coming in. They have a nice mix of young guys and veterans, and they just look very poised.”

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AP Sports Writers Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness