Noah Copes With Cross to Bear

To the shock of nearly everyone outside the University of Florida, Joakim Noah decided last April to come back for another year in college -- only to find that the curriculum had changed.

The basket weaving that was 2006 has been replaced by the biophysics of '07. The continuing education of Jo Noah has, at times, been an immersion in the school of hard knocks, cheap shots and crude taunts.

A year ago Noah had all the answers, having catapulted out of relative obscurity to establish himself as the best player and brashest personality in the NCAA Tournament. Now the junior forward returns to the Final Four wiser but wearier. He's learned a fresh set of life lessons -- about the steep price of high expectations, the heavy burden of a season-long bull's-eye and the thin line between fresh and overexposed.

This repeat bid has been a struggle at times for the Gators, and by the end it's clear who struggled most with it: their leading man and lightning rod.

Insults in every opposing arena. Clucks of dismay over every diminished stat. Draft gurus deconstructing his game. Cheerleaders in his grille. Thirty-three victories, plenty of moments to celebrate, and nobody's satisfied yet.

That has been Noah's emotionally draining season in a nutshell. Being the Christian Laettner of the new millennium hasn't been easy.

"I don't regret anything," he said. "There were a lot of hard times this year, but this is a part of me growing up, not just as a basketball player but as a person.

"Last year, people around me were just happy that I got an opportunity to play basketball, that I got a chance to play, because my freshman year I didn't play. This year, if I don't have this amount of points, this amount of rebounds, this amount of blocks, it's, 'What was I doing? What was wrong with me?' "We were still winning basketball games, but it was 'What are you doing?' People didn't understand where I was coming from."

Actually, I'd argue that Noah didn't fully understand where he was coming from. Namely, the mountaintop. And there's usually only one way to go from there.

You average 16 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks, three assists and a steal over a six-game span with the whole world watching, you set an NCAA Tournament record for swatted shots and you lead a rampage to the national title? People come to expect that -- actually, more than that -- next time they see you.

The commonly held belief was that Noah was just scratching the surface of his prodigious potential -- just polishing up his raw game. When his shooting caught up with his other skills, when his strength caught up with his athleticism, when he had a full season imbued with the confidence of being The Man, he'd own this game.

It hasn't worked out that way. Ownership (and NBA draft status) was usurped by fresh-faced kids named Durant and Oden. The landslide preseason national player of the year choice was not a first-team All-American and has not been the best player on his own team.

There were times during this challenging season when Noah sought the counsel of his coach, Billy Donovan, whose guidance of this Gators team the past two seasons has approached art. Donovan offered a dose of perspective to his power forward.

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