ATLANTA - Joakim Noah hasn't changed a bit. It just turns out he and his Florida teammates committed an unpardonable crime in attention-deficit America.
They didn't go away when they were supposed to.
A year ago, Noah was fresh and refreshing. He played basketball with an infectious joy and he spoke openly and thoughtfully about the ride the Gators took to the national championship. But it turns out you can only be fresh and refreshing once. Turns out there's a thin line between being infectious and making people sick.
It was supposed to be an admirable thing when Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer stayed in school instead of jumping at the NBA money. They would keep playing together because they liked it, and they would try to be the first team since Duke in 1992 to repeat as champion.
But this isn't John Wooden's America. This is Simon Cowell's America. Having the Gators back in the Final Four is like having repeat finalists on American Idol. It's like Survivor being held in the same location as last year.
It has been a drag, and no one knows that better than the man at the epicenter: Noah.
"Last year, I felt like I was playing for a lot of people," Noah said before yesterday's practice at the Georgia Dome. "I played for what people were saying about me on TV, because you know what? It's a good feeling when people are saying nice things about you. But this year, we've been under a microscope. People are so quick to judge us because we're on the big stage all the time."
It's true. Last year's Gators emerged from the regional in Minneapolis, barely defeating Georgetown and then upsetting Villanova to reach the Final Four. They beat upstart George Mason in the national semifinals, then blew out UCLA to cruise to the title.
"Everywhere the Gators play, it's like the circus is in town," Noah said. "People can talk about expectations, but there is nothing like experiencing it. This year, we experienced it."
That experience makes the Gators' presence here all the more admirable. Noah, who might have been the No. 1 overall pick in last year's NBA draft, gave up millions of dollars to return and try to repeat. His draft position will not be as high if he comes out after this, his junior season, and he will never get back the year of earnings he gave up.
Noah isn't complaining. If anything, he's prouder of this year's team than of last year's.
"Last year, we weren't really in the spotlight," Noah said. "This year, every move that we made was talked about and critiqued. None of us have ever gone through something like this. That's made us tougher, and I feel like we're better."
Florida's presence is one reason this feels like a special Final Four. The Gators will face the same UCLA team tonight. Before that game, Georgetown and Ohio State will meet in a matchup that is even more keenly anticipated.
It is a Final Four with great freshmen and with outstanding big men, with coaches who carry the burden of strong legacies (John Thompson III, but also UCLA's Ben Howland) and one coach, Florida's Billy Donovan, who could be moving on to Kentucky within days.
There are sons of famous athletes - Noah, Horford, Taurean Green, Patrick Ewing Jr., Jeremiah Rivers, Mike Conley Jr. - and sons of subsistence farmers.
Noah is at home in the middle of it all. He joked about all of the media responsibilities - "Talk for a half-hour here, talk for a half-hour there, talk, talk, talk, talk," he said - but he clearly enjoys the give-and-take. He patiently explained to one reporter that his use of the word "hater" isn't as literal as the reporter seemed to take it. It's a generational thing.
"I'm not talking about someone trying to kill me," Noah said. "I guess I mean it more like doubters. There are a lot of doubters out there this year. I mean, I get hate mail, but that's not what I'm talking about. We get judged all the time, and that is mentally draining."
He could have been in the NBA, playing 15 minutes off the bench for Toronto or Chicago, making a bunch of money. Instead he's here, against long odds, trying to help his team make its mark on college basketball history.
That's pretty cool, even if it makes Noah some kind of lightning rod for people unable to appreciate his quest.
"Nobody told me it was going to be easy," Noah said. "But if it were easy, everybody would do it. Right?"
He has a point.
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