tampabay.com

New power looks a bit like the old

By GARY SHELTON
Published April 1, 2007


ATLANTA

This just in from John Wooden: Whew.

Somewhere, Bill Walton is wiping his brow. Somewhere, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is thanking his stars. Somewhere, Sidney Wicks is feeling lucky.

It is a good thing for UCLA, as it turns out, that the University of Florida cared so little about basketball back in the day. Otherwise, those kids from Westwood might not be remembered as such wizards, after all.

For the second straight season, the Gators turned back an attempt by UCLA to turn back time. The final score was 76-66, today's team over yesterday's, and by the end, you could assume the joint decision of the Gator kids not to turn pro last year was extremely unpopular in parts of Los Angeles.

And so Florida has stuck another flag in the ground in its effort to become the king of intercollegiate athletics. And if a program is really going to make a run at a mini-dynasty, who better to knock out of the way than UCLA, the Mings of college basketball?

The Gators play Ohio State on Monday night in an attempt to become the first team in 15 seasons to repeat as champions. To the Bruins, who used to do this repetition thing all the time, this was fairly impressive.

Two years of this, and you half expect the Bruins to go home and get their big brothers. If you are old enough, maybe you remember those guys, Walton and Abdul-Jabbar and Wicks and the rest, players who became stars when Nixon was the nation's point guard and the title was decided by a cute little mini-tournament at the end of the season. Back when you could get a good haircut for a good price, and Wooden made certain all his players did.

After this, you can't help but wonder how these Florida kids would fare against those guys. It seems the Gators have a little star quality, too.

This was the dominant game that had been missing from the Gators early in the tournament, a decisive victory over a UCLA team that was supposed to be much better than the team the Gators beat in last year's final. How else are you to read this as anything other than the Gators feeling how close they are to the title?

You have to wonder what the final margin might have been had the Gators not struggled so much in the early going. They hit only one of their first seven shots, all of them 3-pointers because their big men could not get loose underneath, and they had four turnovers in the first five minutes.

All along, however, the key to this Gators team has been its versatility. Can't open things up inside? Can't hit from outside? In such cases, Florida coach Billy Donovan tends to get the ball into Corey Brewer's hands. Aha, that must be why Kentucky is frothing over Donovan.

There for a while, Brewer played like he wants to pass both Al Horford and Joakim Noah on your NBA mock draft. He drove to the basket. He hit jumpers. He sparked a run that began with the Gators down a point and finished with them ahead by 10.

Just like that, America had itself another championship game between Florida and Ohio State. Hint to Donovan: be careful of that opening kickoff.

Once again, it bears repeating just how hard this repeating stuff is. Kentucky's '96 champions got back to the final a year later but lost. Same with Arkansas in '95 Georgetown in '85.

If Florida is going to be different, it could use a better start. It could cut down on its turnovers. Still, with the energy it showed against the Bruins, with the defensive intensity, it's going to be hard to stop the Gators.

Back in the day, they used to say that about UCLA a lot, too.

When it comes to comparing the Gators to the UCLA dynasty, I'm mostly kidding. The Bruins were terrific. No team will ever win eight in a row again, or 10 in 12 years, the way the Bruins did.

On the other hand, defending the title is tougher in the days of the expanded field and the 3-point line and the shot clock and the percentage of underclassmen jumping to the pros. There seem to be about 10 times as many programs who are interested in the sport as there used to be back in the days when it was difficult to tell basketball shorts from hot pants. Also, boosters such as Sam Gilbert who fold hundred-dollar bills into paper airplanes and sail them toward the players are generally frowned upon.

Still, there are some parallels to be drawn between the old Bruins and the Gators. The unselfishness of the play. The unshakable confidence when the game isn't going well. The way they have gotten better over their past three games.

Yeah, Wooden would like these guys, all right.

Except, perhaps, for Noah's ponytail.