Noah Copes With Cross to Bear

I was seated about five feet away, saw the whole thing, and there's no doubt who instigated the situation. But when Noah angrily swiped at the cheer pixie's pompoms, it became an Internet firestorm and the victim was barbecued.

"Last year was all fun and games," Noah said. "It was, 'Oh, he's just so funny, look at him.' This year, it's under a microscope.

"This year, the cheerleader in Kentucky, she goes like this with the pompoms in my face [motioning to the NCAA representative next to him in a St. Louis news conference]. I was pissed off. It was my second foul, so I was mad. People look at this, and they say, 'Oh, Noah is such a bad guy.'

"You know what I realized? I don't care what people think anymore. I used to. I'm not going to lie. I used to play for everybody. You can't do that."

This is the hard lesson learned by progressing through to the downside of the fame cycle.

Last year Noah's story was fresh and fascinating: multicultural son of a tennis star and a Swedish model, oozing personality, fabulously candid, massively improved game. This year, we already know all that -- and his game stopped improving.

Time for a new story angle -- and the kid who morphed from confident to cocky to almost arrogant last spring gave his critics some ammo.

He won too much and emoted too much. Mostly, he won too much. Every team in America would love to have Noah wear its uniform -- but since he doesn't, he's the player to boo.

And as Florida has continued to win, the haters Noah so often refers to have had to suck it up and take it. The payoff for a grueling season is almost at hand, for a team much wiser now than it was at this stage last spring.

"We've learned so much," Noah said. "I know personally I've learned so much more about people this year than last year."

The valedictory moment in the continuing education of Joakim Noah is now at hand. Walking out of the Georgia Dome with one more piece of championship net would be all the diploma he needs to graduate.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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