Need a reason UCLA will win? Here's 20
INDIANAPOLIS -- Nothing against my colleague Pat Forde, who wears really cool Tommy Hilfiger shirts and, unlike me, has a reason to purchase a comb, but the man is drinking way too much Swamp Kool-Aid these days.
"Nuh-nuh?" I asked.
"Theme song from 'Jaws,' " said Forde.
Then he did the Gator Chomp and made a beeline toward the Florida locker room, presumably to check whether Joakim Noah was having a bad ponytail day.
Look, I think the Gators are a wonderful team, too. You don't win the SEC title, win 32 games, and reach the final line of the final Final Four bracket by accident. South Alabama, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Georgetown, Villanova and now George Mason can all provide testimonials.
But I'm waving baby blue UCLA pom-poms because, well, they make me feel pretty, and because I think the Bruins are just thismuch better than the Gators. Let me count the reasons why:
Monday marks the three-year anniversary of coach Ben Howland's hiring at UCLA. What better way to celebrate than with a postgame net-cutting ceremony?
2. Press Breakers
Florida is going to press UCLA. Florida presses everybody, and it uses as many as four different presses to create chaos, turnovers and quick scoring opportunities.
The Bruins haven't faced anything exactly like the Billy Donovan Blitz, but they have seen presses -- good ones, too. Arizona liked to press at times and UCLA beat the Wildcats three different times this season. Washington was good enough to employ full-court pressure and, yeah, I know, the Huskies swept their season series against the Bruins.
But I'm all about turning negatives into positives. UCLA has at least three players who can handle the ball -- Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Cedric Bozeman. Those experiences against the press -- and those three Bruin ballhandlers -- should minimize the damage of Florida's pressure.
3. Final Four History
The last three NCAA tournament champions have at least one thing in common: Each one defeated teams from the same conference to win the title.
In the 2003 Final Four, Syracuse beat the Big 12's Texas and then Kansas. In the 2004 Final Four, Connecticut beat the ACC's Duke and then Georgia Tech. And last year, North Carolina beat the Big Ten's Michigan State and then Illinois to earn the championship.
UCLA already has beaten the SEC's LSU in the national semifinal game. That leaves ...
Coincidence or fate?
4. The Lee Humphrey Factor
Anybody who thinks 6-foot-2 Gator guard Lee Humphrey is going to hit six 3-pointers against UCLA (as he did against George Mason in Saturday night's game) needs a CAT scan. The Gators made 12 of 25 treys against the Patriots (six of 10 in the second half), but there's no way that happens against a UCLA team that can guard the perimeter.
In all, 36 of Florida's 73 points against GMU came from beyond the arc. If I noticed that, I guarantee you Howland's staff did too. Look for the Bruins to pay particular attention to Mr. Humphrey, who has a school-record 109 treys for the season.
UCLA has just enough to make a difference.
The Bruins' starting lineup includes two seniors, two sophomores and a freshman. Florida's lineup features four sophomores and one junior.
"It's such an advantage to be older than your opponent, both mentally and physically," said Howland.
6. Slow or Fast
The Bruins have a reputation for being sort of a half-court team that doesn't make a move without first getting instructions from Howland on the sideline. That's true, up to a point. On occasion, UCLA does look as though it's tethered to Howland's every word.
But did you notice what the Bruins did against LSU, supposedly the most athletic team in the Final Four, maybe even the entire tournament? They outran them. UCLA coaches said Glen "Big Baby" Davis had to call two timeouts just to catch his breath.
"We were at 39 [points] in the first half, right?" said Howland. "We're going to have to do that [Monday night] because Florida wants to get up and down. They're going to try to press us, they're going to try to create a tempo that's up and down. That's great. We scored 86 points against Arizona at home. We can play any way you want to play."
7. The Wizard
How about this for a safety net: If Howland gets stuck in his preparation for the Gators, then the great John Wooden, who won 10 Final Fours as UCLA's coach, is only a phone call away.
8. Distinguished Guests
Maybe it will mean something, maybe not, but UCLA basketball royalty will be well represented here Monday. Bruins alums scheduled to attend the championship: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (by the way, big guy, you might want to think about ditching that goober hat you wore to Saturday evening's semi), Reggie Miller, Michael Warren, Ed O'Bannon, Bill Walton, Brad Holland, Ralph Jackson, Curtis Knight. Jim Harrick, who led the Bruins to their last hoops national title in 1995, will also be here, as will Troy Aikman.
9. The Streak
The Bruins own the nation's longest winning streak at 12 games. The last time UCLA had one of those kind of streaks, it won the national championship.
Few teams, if any, have had to deal with more injuries than the Bruins. But they've gotten healthy, or relatively so, when it counts most: in time for the postseason.
"What I think it's done, it's made us better," said Howland, adding later, "It's allowed a lot of the players that may not have played as much of a role early in the season to get a lot of playing time, a lot of opportunity."
If defense wins championships -- and it almost always does -- then the Bruins are in wonderful shape. Just ask LSU, whose players looked as though they had a physical affliction while trying to shoot against UCLA in the semifinals.
In their five NCAA tournament wins, the Bruins have given up 44, 59, 71, 45 and 45 points. Scoreboard operators suffer finger atrophy when working UCLA games.
During the Tournament, opponents are averaging just 52.8 points and are shooting only 36.8 percent from the field and 17.5 percent from the 3-point line. Is that any good?
12. I'm Due
I haven't picked the Final Four winner since Gene Keady was combing his hair back, not sideways.
13. UCLA Understands
Florida outrebounded George Mason, 40-27. The Gators thrive on getting second and third chances. I'm guessing UCLA will do a much better job of limiting Florida to more one-shot possessions. Blockouts are going to be a huge factor, and the Bruins have the size and quickness to make that happen.
14. Joakim Noah
Noah had four blocks against an undersized George Mason team. His linescore was impressive enough (12 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one steal), but he also made his share of mistakes. I think he'll struggle against a UCLA tag-team frontline that includes 6-foot-7 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, 7-1 Ryan Hollins, 6-8 Lorenzo Mata and even 6-8 Alfred Aboya.
What can I say? I'm a sucker for those classic UCLA jerseys. Florida's, not so much.
Several of Florida's players said tradition doesn't mean a thing once the game begins. It does at UCLA.
"Absolutely it means something," said Howland. "We're playing for ourselves. These kids are playing for one another. We're also playing for the program and for UCLA. There's no program that has more tradition or rich history of winning than UCLA. These kids know that and embrace that. They represent those four letters."
17. The Cedric Bozeman Factor
The 6-6 senior swingman is the inspirational centerpiece of UCLA. Bozeman missed last year because of a torn ACL. His teammates have made little secret of their desire to win a championship for him.
18. Ben Howland
I'm not saying Howland is a better coach than Donovan. But I am saying Howland is a good enough coach to make in-game changes that matter. And no way will his team be outprepared for the title game. In short, a toss-up.
19. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Gawd, I love typing that. He might be a freshman, but the kid is fearless. Better yet, he delivers night in, night out.
"With Luc, you get consistency," said Bozeman. "He's only a freshman. The sky's the limit."
"Whatever's asked of him, he can do," said Jordan Farmar.
20. The Bank
As in take it there with this prediction: UCLA 75, Florida 74.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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