Forwards Joakim Noah and Al Horford, who have led Florida to this weekend's Final Four, barely made a ripple during last season's NCAA tournament. And while forward Glen "Big Baby" Davis had a strong performance in LSU's first-round game last year, Tyrus Thomas was being redshirted and didn't play at all.
But when Florida plays George Mason and LSU plays UCLA in Saturday's national semifinal games at the RCA Dome, there could be more than a national championship at stake for the four players from Southeastern Conference schools.
Because of their strong play during the first four games of the NCAA tournament, each has emerged as a possible lottery pick in June's NBA draft, if they decide to enter it as underclassmen. In fact, some NBA scouts believe Thomas, the athletic scorer and extraordinary shot-blocker, could be the first player selected if he comes out.
"I'm not worried about the NBA right now," Thomas said. "It's about the Final Four."
Thomas, 6 feet 9, 215 pounds, was named the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year, then was bothered by a sprained ankle late in the regular season. He didn't start the Tigers' first two NCAA tournament games against Iona and Texas A&M, getting 15 points and 11 rebounds, but then came around in the semifinals and finals of the Atlanta Region. In a 62-54 upset of No. 1 seed Duke, Thomas had 9 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocked shots, and was a one-man wrecking crew in a 70-60 victory over Texas with 21 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Davis, 6-9, 310, also has helped his NBA stock during the NCAA tournament, averaging 20.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots. There were concerns about Davis's weight and some scouts questioned whether he was tall enough to compete with NBA centers, or quick enough to guard forwards. He appears to have addressed both concerns in March.
"Right now, I don't have a bill to worry about," Davis said. "I don't have to deal with the business aspect of basketball. Playing in the NBA is one of my dreams. But when it comes to a business, you have to grow up. I have talked to some of my ex-teammates. They have told me you have to be mentally ready to play in the NBA."
Noah, who played only two minutes during the Gators' two NCAA tournament games last season, has been perhaps the most dominating player in this year's tournament. In four games, he has averaged 17.3 points, 10 rebounds and 4.8 blocked shots. Noah, the son of former tennis star Yannick Noah, said earlier this week that he is almost certain he will return to Florida next season, even though some NBA draft experts predict he could be among the first 15 chosen.
"I really haven't thought about it," Noah said. "Right now, I'm loving it. This is what it's all about. People dream about going to the NBA, but it's a little different for me because I'm not a kid who didn't have food on his plate. The refrigerator was always pretty full when I went home. The NBA is definitely my dream, but at the same time, is that what it's all about? I don't think so. I love my life right now and I love playing for Florida."
Noah, 6-11, 227, said he isn't much of an NBA fan after attending a game between the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets last year. Noah said he left at halftime.
"It was boring," Noah said. "The game was just boring. It's a joke almost. Everything is just slowed down. College is just so fun and it's pure and it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Horford, 6-8, 235, also has caught the attention of NBA scouts after averaging 12.8 points, 10 rebounds and 1 block in four NCAA tournament games. Horford doesn't seem to be as polished as Noah, but he is athletically gifted and has a similarly long wingspan. Horford, like Noah, handles the basketball extremely well and is an exceptional passer for a front-court player.
Horford's father, former Washington Bullets center Tito Horford, told reporters last week at the Minneapolis Region that his son would definitely return to Florida next season. Guard Corey Brewer, who was the most highly regarded player among Florida's sophomore class, is projected to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft, too.