- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Jordan Farmar didn’t hear about dunks, a high-scoring offense or all the other facets of basketball that high school stars are stereotypically interested in when UCLA coach Ben Howland recruited him.

Instead, he learned of almost nothing other than Howland’s plans about the other end of the floor.

“All he talked about was defense,” Farmar said. “That’s what he did, that’s what he coaches, that’s what he preaches. I’m glad he was honest and I got a heads up.”

The rest of the country has learned more of Howland’s philosophy in the last three weeks as the second-seeded Bruins (32-6) marched through the Oakland bracket of the NCAA tournament and into tonight’s title game against third-seeded Florida (32-6) at the RCA Dome.

UCLA is the first team since 1985 Villanova to limit three NCAA tournament opponents to 45 points or less. Yet the Wildcats made their run before both the shot clock and the 3-point line were instituted, lending even greater value to the Bruins’ accomplishment.

The Bruins systematically demoralize foes with a defense that extends beyond the 3-point line and an opportunistic offense content to run the shot clock down when it takes a lead. In their 50-45 regional final win over Memphis, UCLA didn’t allow a 3-pointer until the final minute and deflated a team accustomed to high-scoring games.

Saturday’s 59-45 victory was similar. The Bruins smothered LSU’s big men and paid just enough attention to the perimeter to take away the Tigers’ few outside threats. LSU fell behind early and its players eventually started snapping at each other, clearly flustered with UCLA’s persistence.

“Err on aggression has been our key,” UCLA forward Cedric Bozeman said. “If you’re going to make a mistake, make a mistake aggressively. Defense is definitely carrying us, and we pride ourselves on that.”

However, the Bruins possess some offensive talent — notably guards Farmar and Arron Afflalo. It’s a backcourt tandem capable of taking over games, and Howland was clearly irked when reporters tried to downplay UCLA’s offensive capabilities.

“We can play any way you want to play,” Howland said. “At the end of the day, we have to defend, rebound, take good shots and take care of the basketball.”

Added Farmar: “I don’t think we’re low scoring. We just do what it takes to win, and we’re smart.”

Howland is right in the sense the Bruins scored 39 points in the first half Saturday before dramatically slowing things down in the final 10 minutes. UCLA twice scored 80 points to defeat Arizona during the regular season and is capable of pushing the tempo in stretches.

Nevertheless, the Bruins’ preferred style is a methodical approach Howland refined when he coached in the rough-and-tumble Big East at Pittsburgh. Murmurs a UCLA title could alter the way college basketball is played are a bit premature, although a Bruins victory tonight might give pause to programs that are over-reliant on offense to win games.

“Right now we’re proving the notion that sharing the ball offensively and playing defense does in fact win games, especially tournament games where pressure and mistakes are a little higher,” Afflalo said. “I don’t know how much it will change the whole entire landscape of basketball, but we’re still making progress and trying to be a fast-break team. Right now with our personnel, this is what it allows us to do.”

The problem of surmounting the stingy Bruins falls to a Florida team with some history of low-scoring victories. The Gators captured the SEC tournament with a 49-47 win over South Carolina in the league title game and later eked out a 57-53 defeat of Georgetown in the regional semifinals.

Those games could essentially be dry runs for tonight, when Florida attempts to win its first national title.

And therein lies a decided contrast between the two programs. UCLA owns 11 national championships, the last coming in 1995. Florida did not reach the tournament until 1987, although it is making its third Final Four appearance since 1994.

“This win would really put our program on the map,” Florida forward Corey Brewer said. “We really need to get this win.”

The Gators were bombarded by questions of the Bruins’ storied history. Unlike LSU’s Glen Davis, who playfully asked whether Bruins legends Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Reggie Miller would be on the floor, they refrained from bringing up aspects of the hardwood heritage in Westwood.

Instead, Florida deftly brushed aside any needless concerns about its opponent’s purported mystique, noting there were far greater things to worry about than the past.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing UCLA or Savannah State,” sophomore forward Joakim Noah said. “It doesn’t matter. This is the championship game. It’s everybody’s dream to play in this game.”

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