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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT | FINAL FOUR | Bill
Plaschke

In Gator country, UCLA is history

March 27, 2007|Bill Plaschke

GAINESVILLE, FLA. — The tradition of the UCLA basketball team swept through this quiet country town Monday with all the fury of sweet tea.

"I don't care about UCLA's tradition," said Walter Hodge, a backup guard on the Florida basketball team. "I don't know anything about it."

He was asked if he had heard of a coach named John Wooden.

"I don't know, and I don't care," he said.

He paused.

"Is he that old dude?"

The legacy of UCLA basketball deftly sliced through the Gators' heart Monday like a comb through Joakim Noah's hair.

"They've won, like, 17 national championships, right?" forward Al Horford said. "But I don't think that has anything to do with today."

He was asked if he knew the name of their home arena.

"No."

He was asked if he had heard of Pauley Pavilion.

"No."

Meeting the media here Monday in baggy sweats, white T-shirts and untied shoes, the members of the Florida basketball team acted as if Saturday's national semifinal game was all about their difficult journey toward history.

A trip in which UCLA is just another mile marker.

There were few questions about Bruins, and fewer answers.

The affable Gators weren't nasty or obnoxious, they just didn't seem to care.

Two wins shy of the record books, the potential back-to-back champions believe it's all about themselves.

"We know UCLA has their legacy, but this is about us trying to establish our legacy," Horford said.

As the centerpiece of this country's hottest three weeks of sports television, the Gators are all about ESPN.

UCLA is more known here for being on ESPN Classic.

"That's where I remember seeing most of their great games," guard Lee Humphrey said.

Featuring three stars who sacrificed big NBA money for a chance at a second title, the Gators have the most famous returning players in the game.

UCLA is more known here by the guy who didn't return, guard Jordan Farmar.

"If you can be a better team without a first-round NBA draft pick

Last spring, after the Gators surprisingly wound up in the national championship game against the Bruins, Donovan hastily filled them with information about the UCLA dynasty.

But one year and one 16-point national title victory later, everything is different.

This year, with his team under constant scrutiny, Donovan has had little time to worry about anyone else.

'It's been totally different," he said. "A different road traveled."

Before last year's title game, UCLA was the star. This year, the Bruins are the props.

In the Gators' quest to become the first NCAA repeat champions in 15 years, they seem too busy to sweat the small stuff of a program that once won back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back titles.

"I know about the history of the UCLA program, but I don't care about it," said Chris Richard, a backup forward. "I wasn't alive when it happened. It doesn't have anything to do with us."

They had just arrived home from their regional final championship win over Oregon late Sunday night, and weren't practicing Monday, so they had not yet watched film. The only things they knew came from the rare glimpses of the Bruins on national television.

They know Josh Shipp makes the Bruins stronger.

"He didn't play last year, and I know he makes a difference," Horford said.

And they know Darren Collison gives them a different look.

"He's more of a true point guard than Farmar," Horford said. "It makes them a tough team to guard."

But most of them, when asked about the Bruins, just shrugged.

"I'm sure their history helps their recruiting," Humphrey said. "But once they step on the floor, I don't think it makes a difference."

In these final wilting days of a season spent under a national spotlight, Florida is clearly more worried about Florida.

"Last year our motto was PHD -- poor, hungry, driven," Noah said. "This year, we still have to have PHD, but people are throwing so many things at you -- filet mignon, salami -- that it makes it hard."

Salami?

"Yeah, salami," he said.

Strange food metaphors notwithstanding, Noah acknowledged that if Florida wasn't quite prepared to shake in their sneakers over UCLA, it's because they might be too mentally tired to worry about anybody but themselves.

"There were parts of this season I was drained, just drained of people," he said.

Just a guess, but UCLA being the next "people" that Noah and his teammates see is clearly an advantage to UCLA.

For years, we've seen what happened when those four capital letters scared somebody.

Now, for the first time, we'll see what happens when they sneak up on somebody.

Just a guess, but that old dude probably can't wait.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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