ATLANTA—The NCAA tournament field narrowed a little further—and became much more intense—on Monday night as the University of Florida tallied a convincing 84-75 victory over Ohio State University to advance further into college basketball's championship, making 2007 the second time in as many years that Florida has reached the NCAA Tournament's Round Of One.
However, Florida head coach Billy Donovan says that this time around, his team hopes to win it all.
"Anyone who knows their college hoops will tell you that the Round Of One is when the real tournament begins," said Donovan during the post-game press conference from Atlanta's Georgia Dome, adding that his team could go down as one of the best in the history of college basketball if they can advance past the next few rounds. "This was a great victory for our team, and a good confidence-booster, but it doesn't mean anything if we don't win next week."
"I'm just going to enjoy this victory for tonight," he added, responding to a questions about possible adjustments the Gators will have to make in the future. "But tomorrow it's back to work. It only gets harder from here on out, folks."
Thus far, Florida has moved methodically through the tournament, easily making it into the Round Of 32, the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and the Final Four, but now has to deal once again with the pressures that accompany being the Wondrous One.
"Last tournament we were a young team—we weren't ready for all the media attention and the grind. This year, we are totally focused," said star center Joakim Noah, who was voted Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 Wondrous One for his play against UCLA, but struggled visibly with endurance and composure in subsequent rounds. "This is why I came back to Florida—to get past the Round Of One and, hopefully, on to the championship. I had something to prove, and so did this entire team. We're hungrier than we've ever been."
Noah added that he made the mistake of playing too hard in last year's regular season and failed to pace himself through the early rounds of the tournament, and credits his steady but unspectacular 12 points-per-game average this year as part of a concerted effort to save his energy.
"I think Florida definitely has what it takes," said ESPN college basketball analyst Digger Phelps, who will call Florida's next game. "But there is so much pressure at this stage in the tournament that if a team comes out flat like, say, UCLA did in 1972, you just never know. That's what makes the tournament so exciting."
Ohio State coach Thad Madda admitted in an interview outside a somber Ohio State locker room that his young team was "just not ready" to play amongst the elite, even going so far as to say that if his team did defeat Florida to move on in the tournament he would have had to contend with players wanting to go home at the end of their semesters in late April.
"Heck, to win your final game, and end the NCAA Tournament with a couple dozen victories and no losses is everyone's dream, but truthfully, I don't know if [center] Greg [Oden] would have even been able to play in the championship game," Madda said, referring to the possibility of Oden being drafted by the NBA on June 28, two weeks before the final round of the NCAA Tournament. "I certainly wish Florida the best of luck the rest of the way."
Though college basketball fans across the nation have enjoyed the tournament's close games, many are hoping that there are some upsets as tournament play continues in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Portland. Fans will surely be glued to their television sets as all weekend games can be seen on CBS, while games during the week will air on ESPN, with the overflow being broadcast on ESPN 2.
"I made a few crazy picks in my office pool that I'm hoping will pan out," Philadelphia resident Geoff Caldwell said. "Luckily, I had Florida going this far, but I don't think they'll make it to Nashville. After the Round Of One, the competition just gets too tough."
If Florida does advance past the next round, it will be the farthest the Gators have advanced in the NCAA Tournament since it was fractionated in 1970.