It’s 2006. Facebook has recently been made open to the public. The first episode of “Hannah Montana” just aired on the Disney Channel. And the Gators men's basketball team brought home its first national championship title in program history.
Thousands of students gathered in pre-2016 renovation Exactech Arena to celebrate the historic win. Head coach Billy Donovan and his starting five stood on the stage, basking in the triumphant cheers of the Florida faithful.
When sophomore Al Horford grabbed the microphone to address Gator Nation, its roars intensified.
“It’s been a great two years for me, Joakim and Corey,” he said.
Bringing the first basketball national championship trophy and two conference tournament titles in two years to Gainesville, Hordford expressed that the quartet of sophomores — Horford, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer — felt they had done all they needed to at the college level.
Noah, specifically, had been projected as a top-10 NBA draft pick that year after being named Most Outstanding Player for his performances against George Mason and UCLA. Unlike this season’s crop of sophomores, the idea of these four players leaving Florida for bigger and better things in the pros was a distinct possibility.
Perhaps if they had been sophomores at Duke or Kentucky or another blueblood basketball school, they would’ve chosen millions over another chance to bring home some hardware next season.
But instead, Noah grabbed the mic from Horford.
“What do you people want us to do?” he asked the restless crowd.
“Two more years,” they chanted.
“We’re back, baby,” he answered their pleas.
The O'Connell Center erupted.
The following season, the Gators became the first team since the 1991 and 1992 Duke Blue Devils and the only team this century to win back-to-back basketball titles.
But what if those three didn’t come back? What if they decided one national championship was enough and picked the league over lecture halls in 2007?
The sign outside of the basketball arena would have one less year listed under the “National Champions” sign out front. There would be two fewer banners raised above the hardwood, as Florida likely wouldn’t have made it to the Final Four the next season either. Assuming that a 2007 team without Horford, Noah, Green and Brewer couldn’t have accomplished anything the actual 2007 squad did, coach Donovan still would have gotten his court dedication this season. He’s still the winningest coach in UF basketball history.
But maybe the expectations Gators fans have of Mike White wouldn’t be quite as lofty. Maybe the “fire Mike White hive” doesn’t even exist on Twitter. Without the ego that comes with back-to-back titles — even if they were won over ten years ago — maybe Gators fans would be satisfied with a team that consistently makes it to the NCAA Tournament.
Follow Payton on Twitter @petitus25 and contact her at [email protected].