Noah and Mohammed know Final Four is special


Apr 3

As March Madness comes to an end, Joakim Noah and Nazr Mohammed will be keeping track of this weekend’s Final Four games with a vested interest.

Noah is a former Florida Gator, while Mohammed spent three seasons with the Kentucky Wildcats.

Florida, the tournament’s top overall seed, will face the University of Connecticut, coached by former Bulls guard Kevin Ollie, followed by Kentucky taking on the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday evening.

Joakim Noah helped lead the University of Florida to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.

Joakim Noah helped lead the University of Florida to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images Sport)

Always happy to talk about his college days, Noah’s face lit up when asked about the Gators this week.

“There is nothing better than winning that Elite Eight game, getting on the plane with all your guys, and knowing that Gator Nation is waiting for you at the airport,” said Noah. “It’s that pride feeling, that school pride, that Gator pride. They show you so much love and just knowing that we’re still alive and there is still basketball to be played, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Cutting down the nets following a national championship, which Noah and his teammates did in 2006 and 2007, surely was also a good feeling.

And while Noah played a major role in both title runs—he was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 NCAA Tournament Final Four—he’s quick to credit Gators coach Billy Donovan for the job he’s done then and now.

“Coach Donovan, he’s the best, man,” said Noah. “I love him not just as a coach, but he’s really like another father figure to me. I love him like family and I would do anything for that guy. I’ve learned so many life lessons from him. We’ve had a lot of great times together; a lot of hard times together. I think he’s helped me grow not just as a basketball player—everybody knows basketball-wise he’s one of the best—but as a person as well.”

Noah has kept in touch with Donovan over the years and it’s not unusual for him to visit campus in Gainesville during the offseason. Thus he’s gotten to know several of the Gators who have followed in his footsteps and it’s this year’s upperclassmen in particular who he is happy to see succeed.

“They’ve gone through a lot as a team, especially those seniors [after] losing three straight Elite Eights,” said Noah, who scored 16 points (7-9 FG) and swatted an NCAA Championship Game record six shots against UCLA in 2006. “To finally get over the hump as seniors, to me that’s what it is all about. Going through hardship, going through adversity as a group and then finally getting over the hump. It’s probably the best feeling in the world.”

Erik Murphy, a Bulls draft pick who the team requested waivers on Thursday, was with that group of seniors who came up short in the aforementioned three consecutive Elite Eight appearances. He echoes Noah’s sentiments and hopes that the team’s talent, coupled with its experience, is enough to win the school’s third national title in basketball.

“Obviously they have a lot of talent,” said Murphy of this season’s Gators. “But I like how well they play together and how much they care about each other on the court. I think it’s a testament to coach [Donovan] and what he instills in the team as well as those guys playing a bunch of years together, especially that senior group.”

Murphy elaborated on what makes Donovan, who now coaches his younger brother Alex, a redshirt sophomore who transferred from Duke in December, so successful.

“He’s obviously a great Xs and Os coach, but off the court he builds relationships with his guys,” said Murphy, who was named First Team All-SEC as a senior. “In the locker room, he’s a great motivator and he really gets you to buy in to what it takes to win.”

Should the Gators advance, they could be squaring off against Kentucky, who at No. 8 is the lowest remaining seed.

“They’ve been up and down but I’m impressed with the way they’ve grown, especially at the end of the season,” remarked Mohammed, who helped the Wildcats advance to the NCAA Championship Game in each of his three seasons. “They are playing basketball the way they need to at the right time.”

And Mohammed knows a thing or two about that, as he was member of the NCAA Championship teams in 1996 and 1998, scoring 10 points as Kentucky outlasted Utah in his final collegiate contest.

“It’s definitely a great experience, knowing that you’re one of the last four teams in the country playing for the championship game,” recalled Mohammed of the Final Four stage. “The buildup and excitement really gets you ready.”

Though it’s John Calipari who now coaches Kentucky while Mohammed played for Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith during his days as a Wildcat, he likes what he’s seen out of Calipari since his arrival in Lexington five years ago.

“He’s done an unbelievable job and this isn’t the first year he’s done a great job,” stated Mohammed of Calipari, who led Kentucky to its eighth NCAA Tournament Championship in 2012. “He’s always doing a great job and it’s something to watch.”

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