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Opposite Pasts. Similar Presents.

Tonight marks the fourth appearance for a Florida school in the national title game. The Gators lost in their first appearance. The previous two? Jacksonville and Florida State both lost to UCLA:

By JOHN ROMANO
Published April 2, 2006


INDIANAPOLIS - It's time to choose sides. To pick whether glory belongs here or there. To decide, essentially, to trust in the past or believe in the future.

It's UCLA versus Florida and, yes, somebody is fighting a few pounds out of his weight class.

College basketball's national championship will be decided tonight with a pairing that, from afar, hardly seems fair.

Let's see, John Wooden or Norm Sloan? Oh, I think I'll take the Wizard over the whiner. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Dwayne Schintzius? Legend, please. Gail Goodrich or Vernon Maxwell? Give me the guy who had his uniform retired as opposed to the one who had proof of his existence eradicated.

UCLA or Florida, tonight?

Ah, now I'll take the Gators.

Don't get me wrong. Tradition matters. It matters in recruiting, and in fundraising. It matters when you're selling tickets, and negotiating TV deals. It matters when things are going poorly, and when they're going great.

But tradition will not keep Joakim Noah from setting the NCAA Tournament record for blocks tonight. It will not keep Taurean Green or Lee Humphrey from knocking down 3s if UCLA tries to double-team inside. And tradition will not keep Billy Donovan from joining a small list of the nation's hottest coaches.

"History," Noah said, "doesn't help you win basketball games."

Good thing, too. Because college basketball history might as well begin in Westwood. The Bruins have more national titles than any university. They have sent more players to the NBA than any other program. They have history hanging from the rafters of Pauley Pavilion and sitting in a seat behind their bench.

Wooden is 95 and not expected to make the trip to Indianapolis for tonight's game, but there is no figure larger in college basketball.

"Coach is always there at the home games, sitting behind our bench," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Believe me, I know that. I embrace it. He's the greatest coach in the history of basketball.

"What was accomplished by John R. Wooden will never, ever be seen again at the college level. They won 37 - just so you guys know - 37 NCAA Tournament games in a row. Ten championships in 12 years."

Wooden's numbers, and UCLA's titles, are ingrained in basketball history. They make Mike Krzyzewski's accomplishments seem commonplace.

But the bottom line is they are history. They have no impact on tonight's game. Truth be told, Florida has been the better program the past 10 years.

The Gators have the more recent Final Four appearance. The Gators have more first-round draft picks in the last decade. The Gators have had more stability in the coach's office, and fewer hassles with the NCAA.

The only way Florida falls short is in perceptions.

"Florida is not a basketball school. Florida will always be a football school," senior Adrian Moss said. "You say University of Florida, and people think football. We're just a bunch of guys running around in shorts.

"If we win this thing, we'll be the hot topic for another two weeks. Then it will be the Orange and Blue (spring football) game."

This is the thinking Donovan has fought for 10 years, and will continue to battle after tonight. He has raised the program's profile, but he has not overcome the image of a school that is dabbling in a hobby.

Florida has devoted big dollars and attracted big crowds, but the fervor surrounding basketball has not equaled North Carolina, or Indiana, or Kansas or Kentucky. And it hasn't approached Florida football.

"It doesn't change overnight," UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "In the 77 years of Florida basketball before Billy, we averaged 11 wins a season. Billy has been here for 10 years and averaged 22. Ten years is a long time, but it hasn't overcome 77 yet.

"So let's give it another 10 and see what the perception is then. It'll change. We're slowly getting there."

That's why tonight could mean more than gold rings for a handful of players, or fond memories for a group of fans.

It could mean another, necessary, step in the process. The Gators reached the Final Four in 1994, reached the championship game in 2000, and have a chance to win it all in 2006.

While his players brushed off talk of UCLA's tradition, Donovan spoke of it with reverence. And maybe a little envy. He has recruited top players. He has matched X's and O's with the best of coaches. He charms, and he cajoles.

But he needs more time - and success - to continue changing minds.

"Their players understand what UCLA represents," Donovan said. "The players from the past are watching them and they have a level of expectation of the way they're supposed to perform. I think that's a good thing for a program. That's what we're trying to build."

I'm guessing tonight they will lay the foundation.