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Gators win mythical tilt with Duke

There was a lot of talk about history after Florida beat Ohio State in Monday night's NCAA championship game. It's only natural. One of the fascinating things about sports is trying to compare great teams and players across different eras.

As a long-time observer of college basketball, I know a lot about the history of the NCAA Tournament. The problem is, I've witnessed only 17 Final Fours up close, from courtside. I have fond, but faint memories of watching those great UCLA teams of the 1960s and early '70s on my black-and-white TV set.

So I don't feel qualified to judge Florida against teams from the distant past. But I can make an educated comparison with the Duke teams of 1991-92, the only other school to win consecutive titles since UCLA.

Who would win if those teams played? It's a tough call. After Monday's game, I did an informal poll of veteran hoop writers. They went with Florida by a narrow, one-vote margin. I cast the deciding vote, with some reluctance. We all agreed that such a game would be very close.

There's a tendency to favor the team that's freshest in your mind. Florida's dominance is immediate and persuasive. The Gators had depth, versatility, and a fierce competitive will. They had at least four players -- Joakin Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green -- who will likely play in the NBA.

Of course, you could say the same about those Duke teams, which had Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Antonio Lang. They had the same winning qualities and a terrific coach in Mike Krzyzewski.

I feel like a turncoat picking against Duke, mainly because (former Nichols star) Laettner was the central figure, one of the great clutch players in the history of the event. He and Hurley, the point guard, were at their best in the biggest moments. I always felt Hurley, not Laettner, was the most important player on those teams.

But Laettner would have had problems with Florida's front line. He didn't have to deal with a tandem like Noah and Horford in the '91-92 title games. The '91 Kansas team was small up front. Michigan had Chris Webber and Juwan Howard as freshmen in 1992, but they weren't nearly as polished in the post as the Florida guys.

And the Gators had another solid big man, Chris Richard, coming off the bench. Richard was a revelation in the Final Four, averaging 12 points. Having a sub of Richard's caliber allowed the Florida big men to play more aggressively and risk foul trouble.

Hill was a tremendous college player, but he was a small forward. He'd have been occupied with Brewer on the perimeter. Hurley was a great player. It's too bad that a serious auto accident prevented him from having a significant NBA career. But Florida's Taurean Green would have held his own with him.

The X factor would be Florida's Lee Humphrey, a sensational outside shooter who made defenses pay for sagging into the post. Humphrey was at his best in his two Final Fours, a rare shooter who elevated his game on the big stage. Duke didn't have a shooting guard remotely like him.

So in a mythical Duke-Florida matchup, I'd see it going something like this: Laettner would get in early foul trouble against Horford and Noah. Hill and Hurley -- an underrated three-point shooter -- would take up the offensive slack. But Florida's perimeter defense would tighten in the second half, and a couple of Humphrey three-pointers would be the difference in a two-point game.

Of course, in another 15 years, given more distance from Florida's title, I might decide Duke was better. But it'll be a long time before we see a team that can measure up with either.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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