Perfect March... Perfect April?


UF sophomore Joakim Noah, left, and freshman David Huertas hope to continue celebrating after tonight's title tilt with UCLA and point guard Jordan Farmar.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, April 3, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 3, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
March was perfect.
April?
That could be even more perfect.
Florida's season of firsts - which featured a school-record 17-game win streak to start the season before stumbling through injuries and inconsistency during a mediocre February stretch, has been defined through its torrid March. Nine of its 10 straight wins came during that month, putting Florida in position for its first national championship in school history.
To accomplish that, the Gators must get past a UCLA team that is attempting to re-capture the tradition of its storied past.
UCLA has won 11 national titles, but only one since 1975, when Jim Harrick's 1995 team beat Arkansas.
Florida, the first school to appear in two national championship games this decade, is seeking its first national title after falling to Michigan State 89-76 in the 2000 title game.
No Florida team had made it through March perfect. The 1994 and 2000 teams came closest, finishing 7-2 and 6-2 respectively.
A win tonight would secure a national legacy for Florida coach Billy Donovan and a starting unit of four sophomores and a junior.
"Tradition doesn't have anything to do with (tonight), but I think it probably has something to do with their players, because their players understand what they are representing in terms of what UCLA represents," Donovan said.
"That's what we're trying to build here at Florida. I hope that someday, if I'm here long enough, that guys will come back and say, you know what, I need to go out and play well because Joakim Noah and Al Horford and Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, they play with great passion."
For the 6-foot-11 Noah, tradition will mean little when the whistle blows tonight.
"I know that they have great tradition, they had a lot of great players go through that program," Noah said. "But I don't think that helps you win the game. So right now, it's not about tradition, it's about playing basketball, playing the sport that we've been playing since we were little kids, just enjoying every moment on the big stage."
There are moments, however, when current players can credit an assist from a school's past. UCLA center Ryan Hollins recalled the look on former center Bill Walton's face on the Jumbotron when UCLA trailed by double-digits to Gonzaga midway through the second half.
"He was just as mad as he could be," Hollins said. "That's when it hit me. We had to step it up. Just seeing the sense of caring that Bill Walton had for the program gave me the understanding of the tradition and what it means to be a UCLA basketball player."
Walton will be in the RCA Dome again tonight, as will former UCLA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and former Bruins guard Reggie Miller. There has been talk that legendary 95-year-old coach John Wooden, featured extensively in Sunday's Indianapolis Star, may make a surprise appearance.
UCLA coach Ben Howland has embraced the legacy of Wooden in building the Bruins into a title contender in three years.
"I don't feel any of the shadow," Howland said. "I know who I am. I'm proud to be the one carrying the torch at this time."
Florida could play the role of spoiler the same way it did Saturday in knocking off George Mason. In sports, it's easier to root for the brand name.
"Everyone has been pulling against us," reserve forward Chris Richard said. "We're used to it. From day one, nobody expected us to be where we are now. Everyone expected us to be in the NIT and now we're in the biggest game we can be in in college. All that stuff is a bunch of hype. We don't care about that stuff, all we have to do is go out and execute."
Ultimately, the game could come down to Florida's ability to handle UCLA's relentless defensive pressure. The Bruins hold opponents to 59.3 points per game, playing a style that belies the flash of its home city of Los Angeles.
"It's really getting back to the values of Coach Wooden, of making every possession matter regardless of the situation," UCLA senior forward Cedric Bozeman said. "That begins with defense."
Florida players believe they can handle a grind-it-out game, pointing to the SEC Tournament championship win against South Carolina (49-47) and Sweet 16 win against Georgetown (57-53).
"We've played every game from the 40s to the 90s," Florida senior forward Adrian Moss said. "There's no style of play we haven't faced and we haven't won against."
In scouting UCLA, Florida coaches have compared the Bruins to a team that defends the perimeter like Georgia with size inside like Arkansas.
Last October, few expected Florida to be playing into April with the loss of three starters and 60 percent of its scoring from the season before.
"It's been a lot of hard work," Noah said. "The best thing to this point with our team is we never looked ahead and we never looked back either. We've taken every task at hand for what it is and not taken anything for granted."
Contact Kevin Brockway at 374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com.

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