Florida Gators (29-5) vs. Jackson State Tigers (21-13)
Where: New Orleans
1. Joakim Noah has a MILF. To oversimplify, there are three types of hot college sports groupie. There are The TV Fame-Whores (ex. J. Sterger). There are The Celebrities. (ex. A. Judd) And then there is that rarest (and loveliest) of sightings: The MILF. Last March, Joakim Noah's mom, Cecilia Rodhe, dropped on an unsuspecting Madness-watching nation as suddenly has her son. (Three words: "Former Miss Sweden.") This year, Mom — like Son — won't sneak up on anyone. If you're looking for a fun Tournament-watching drinking game, try sipping every time the camera cuts to her in the stands. It's a toast to moms!
2. You Know Me, Al. Of Florida's "Big Four" juniors that everyone talks about, the best Gator NBA prospect is ... Al Horford. Just ask Dickie V, who a few weeks ago inadvertently let it slip that Florida coach Billy Donovan (allegedly) told him that Horford was a better NBA prospect than Joakim Noah. But I'd argue: Perhaps not just Noah. Let's face it: Greg Oden, once you see him, is softer than you thought he would be. (On one good leg, Horford dominated Oden when the Gators thumped the Buckeyes by 26 in December.) And Kevin Durant, while oozing the Holy Trinity of "length," "upside" and "Simmons-love," is still one selfish shoot-first teammate away from being the next Rashard Lewis rather than the next Dirk Nowitzki. Given Horford's size, speed and versatility (watch him grab a defensive rebound, then lead the fast break with the dribble), he is the most NBA-ready player not just on this Gators team, but arguably in ALL of college basketball — a more athletic Elton Brand. Horford is not a screamer or sexy, but double-doubles rarely are. His presence is the reason Noah becomes a vastly tougher matchup, and Horford provides the Gators with unmatched depth in the post, freeing up the team's 3-point shooters.
3. Repeat After Me. The return of Florida's entire starting five from last year's title team (plus the top reserve from both the frontcourt and backcourt) has created the expectation that this could be the first team to repeat as champs since Duke in '91-92. But the last title team to return all five starters was Arizona in 1998. That 1-seeded Wildcats team got out of the first weekend with two wins by an average margin of 36 ppg. All seemed clear. But then, in the regional final, they were shocked and awed by Utah (by 25!) Why will Florida avoid Arizona's fate? That Arizona team was guard-heavy, dependent on outside shooting (6-for-36 FG shooting in the loss to Utah) and, backcourt neutralized, unable to match the Utes' advantages inside. However, just as in last year's run, there isn't a team in the field that can match the Gators' size and depth advantages in the frontcourt (in addition to solid — if not spectacular — guard-play that is presumed to be a prerequisite for title contention). It's tougher to neutralize interior size than outside shooting. To wit: Look to Florida's three ugly late-season losses at Vandy, at LSU and at Tennessee for the template of how to KO the Gators: The common factors in all three losses? Cold outside shooting by the Gators (27 percent 3-pt), hot shooting by their opponents (56 percent FG) and Florida's brutally slow starts. — Dan Shanoff
JACKSON STATE TIGERS
1. Sweetness. Jackson's State's most famous graduate is, of course, the great Walter Payton. It is a little known fact that his brother, Eddie Payton, is the head golf coach of the Tigers and has built them into a powerhouse in the golf crazy SWAC.
2. Oil Can. Of the many great academics who have attended the university, the most famous quote by an alum is by former major league pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, speaking to Bo Jackson: "I am The Can, and I am going to come right at you with my best shit, and if you can hit it, I want to see how far Bo Jackson can hit The Oil Can." Jackson hit Boyd's first pitch over the 71-foot high score board in straight away center at Fenway (the ball landed 515 feet from home plate).
3. Priorities. The Tigers, also known as the Blue Bengals, last appeared in the NCAA's in 2000. That year, the school sold more tickets to alumns to attend the Jackson State Alumni Jazz Brunch Hair and Fashion Show than to the NCAA tourney. — Nation Of Islam Sports Blog