GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) – They stood on the podium, wearing national championship hats and T-shirts and passing around the trophy as confetti fell all around.

They danced, preened and partied long after the final horn sounded April 3 in Indianapolis. They enjoyed two celebrations back in Gainesville, visited the White House and were treated like royalty everywhere they went.

The Florida Gators remember every moment of their first national title.

Now, they want to relive it.

“We’re going to enjoy being at the top,” forward Corey Brewer said. “Everybody’s going to be talking about us. But we also got to enjoy the process of getting better and accomplishing more.”

Yes, the Gators want more.

They want to become the first team since Duke in 1991-92 to repeat as national champs. They have a legitimate shot, too, returning all five starters and their top seven scorers from the team that beat UCLA 73-57 in the title game and finished 33-6. Florida, the consensus preseason No. 1, begins defense of its title Friday night against Samford.

“I understand that there’s going to be a lot of expectations; there’s going to be a lot of preseason hype around our team,” said coach Billy Donovan, entering his 11th season at Florida. “People are going to talk about who’s going to repeat and everything else. But all that speculation … for me to get caught up in that I would be wasting my time and my energy. I hope our team doesn’t get caught up in that.”

When a Nike representative visited Florida this summer, he told players some teams -including the Gators – would be fitted for special uniforms to wear during the NCAA tournament next March.

Joakim Noah gave him a puzzled look and said, “Why are you talking about that right now? … We don’t even know if we’re going to the NCAA tournament.”

The response thrilled Donovan.

“That tells me he’s thinking along the right mind frame, and he’s exactly right,” Donovan said. “All we’re guaranteed is the schedule that’s in front of us.

“These guys understand the expectations and the level of the hype and all that stuff. But I don’t get a feeling right now that they’ve bought into that stuff.”

Unranked to begin last season, the Gators climbed as high as No. 2 during a 17-0 start. They promptly lost six of the next 11 games – partly because of injuries to Brewer and shooting guard Lee Humphrey. Once healthy, Florida won its last 11 games – getting balanced scoring from Noah, Brewer, Humphrey, point guard Taurean Green and center Al Horford.

The Gators won by an average of 16 points during the NCAA tournament as Noah and Horford bullied opponents inside and Humphrey and Brewer took control outside.

Noah, the 6-foot-11 son of tennis star Yannick Noah, was named the Final Four’s most valuable player after setting a tournament record with 29 blocked shots, including a record six against the Bruins in the title game.

His passionate play, engaging personality, long ponytail and multicultural background have made him a fan favorite and one of the country’s most recognizable college athletes.

Noah also was certain to be an NBA lottery pick had he left school after his sophomore season. Horford and Brewer could have made the jump, too.

But all decided to return and try to repeat.

“When you take that step to the NBA, you don’t know what team you’re going to,” Noah said. “Your future is up for grabs. Of course, there’s a lot of money involved, but I’ve never been in a situation where I needed to fill up the fridge for my family. I’m just happy to be able to defend a national championship. Not a lot of people can say that. I’m proud of that.”

Donovan did lose two players from last year’s team: senior forward Adrian Moss graduated, and freshman forward David Huertas transferred to Mississippi.

Even so, Florida expects to be deeper and more talented with the addition of four freshmen – all of whom could play this season – and with the experience gained from last year’s run.

Will it be enough to make history?

“We’ve always had a lot of swagger,” Noah said. “We believed even when nobody else believed. We can’t worry about expectations and pressures and this and that. We’ve got to keep attacking and running the floor and doing what we do best, and stay humble. As long as we stay humble, we’re always going to be a tough team to beat.”

AP-ES-11-07-06 1810EST

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