9:21 PM ET, April 3, 2006
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- When the coach at UCLA has a backyard barbecue, it's quite an affair.
Hey, there's Bill Walton. Is that John Wooden? Good to see ya, Marques Johnson.
"I really wanted to do this because I want our players to get the tradition and the history," said Ben Howland, the Bruins' third-year coach. "They hear about it. They see it. They read about it. But the best way to feel it is to know the players and the coach himself."
This past fall, Howland brought together the current team at his home. He served up tri-tip beef, chicken and enchiladas. He invited Wooden, the 95-year-old coach of 10 national championship teams, and dozens of his former players, including Walton and Johnson.
Quite a recipe it was. UCLA (32-6) is now within one victory of its 12th title, set to meet Florida (32-6) in the national championship game Monday night.
"There were so many great players there," Howland recalled. "It was so much fun. Coach Wooden was sitting out by the pool."
Howland knew what he was getting into when the Bruins called in search of the coach who could lead them back to the glory days. Granted, it's not likely in this era of ESPN, AAU and AOL that any school can put together a Wooden-like run of seven straight national titles, nine championships in 10 years, or 10 crowns in 12 years.
Then again, that very history causes UCLA to hold its program to a different standard. Steve Lavin guided the Bruins to five straight 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances, only to get dumped after they slumped to 10-19 in his sixth year.
Enter Howland, who left Pittsburgh to take over one of the sport's highest-profile jobs.
He wasn't swayed by the challenge.
"I'm not afraid of the expectations. I embrace the expectations," Howland said Sunday, one day after a dominating Final Four victory over LSU. "I want our players to embrace that. That's part of the reason we are where we are right now. They're not afraid. If you're afraid to fail, you will."
The Bruins won only 11 games in Howland's first season, but they got back to the tournament a year ago. Now, with a team that relies on stifling defense rather than rim-rocking dunks, they're one victory away from adding to their national championship record, which also includes the 1995 title with coach Jim Harrick.
"Basically, it's substance over style," senior Cedric Bozeman said. "All we care about it is the 'W.' We pride ourselves on defense. If defense is going to win games, that's what we're going to do."
In the final game of the season, the Bruins will be facing a polar opposite of a school: Florida hails from the gridiron-crazy Southeastern Conference, where it's been said there are two seasons -- football and spring football.
The Gators have never won a hoops title, coming closest in 2000 when they fell to Michigan State in the championship game. They've made it back again, facing UCLA in the very same building (RCA Dome, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts) where they lost the last time.
"Are we a basketball school the way Kentucky and Indiana are?" Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "Not yet. That's the goal."
While UCLA has Wooden, Walton and Pauley Pavilion, the Gator archives must settle for Norm Sloan, Vernon Maxwell and Alligator Alley -- the high school-like gym where they played before moving into their current digs.
But Billy Donovan has managed to change Florida's image in his 10 years as coach, luring in players such as Mike Miller, who was part of the last team that made it to the championship game and now plays for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.
Miller remembered what it was like to pick the Gators when basketball powers such as Kentucky and Kansas were also in the mix.
"Florida wasn't really known for basketball at all, so it was a tough decision, but it was a decision I was comfortable making," he said. "I had a lot of confidence in what coach Donovan was trying to do, so it made the decision pretty easy."
Howland had a lot more history to fall back on when he got to UCLA, but he still followed basically the same plan as Donovan when it came to rebuilding a program: Recruit good players. Win over the boosters. Build the team in your own image.
For Howland, that meant relying on the game's less-glamorous side -- an in-your-face, never-let-your-man-out-of-your-sight defense that can lead to unsightly games but drives the other team crazy.
UCLA has held its last two tournament opponents, Memphis and LSU, to 45 points apiece, which sounds like something out of no-shot-clock, four-corners era than it does from today's high-flying sport.
Overall, the Bruins are giving up just 68 points a game, which would be the lowest for an NCAA champion since North Carolina's 66-point average in 1982 -- four years before the shot clock became part of the tournament and five years before the 3-point line was added.
In an NCAA tournament filled with thrilling games, buzzer-beating shots and an improbable run to the Final Four by mid-major George Mason, the semifinals were a bit of a disappointment Saturday.
UCLA dominated LSU in a 14-point win. Florida was clearly superior to George Mason in a 15-point triumph.
That said, the Bruins aren't too concerned with style points.
Championships have always been the main selling point in Westwood.
"With winning, players are going to want to come to UCLA again," said Mike Warren, the captain of the championship teams in 1967 and '68. "Now, will we win 10 championships? I don't think so. But will we become a solid program again? No question."
|Avg Points Allowed||64.8||59.1|
|» Apr 3, 2006||FLA 73, @UCLA 57||Recap|