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Tradition vs. a rising power

By Eddie Pells The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – UCLA had Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and all those championship banners. Florida had Vernon Maxwell and Norm Sloan.

Different programs on opposite coasts with divergent histories play for the national championship tonight, though the game is more than that.

Even with a pair of “power” programs going at it, this game offers yet another reminder of how the success of yesteryear no longer guarantees anything for today and how dynasties have been replaced by parity in college basketball.

“Are we a basketball school the way Kentucky and Indiana are?” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “Not yet. That’s the goal. Will we get there? That’s the goal 15 years from now.”

Getting there is the goal these days. Staying there isn’t possible in the way it was when John Wooden coached. No longer, in this era of ESPN, AAU and AOL, does Wooden sit in his office and wait for players to come.

Still, no one has ever doubted UCLA’s status as a basketball school. Eleven national titles can do that for a program. And while the Bruins still use the success of yesterday to build on today, their dynasty is long gone.

UCLA is closer to its last losing season (11-18 in 2003-04) than its last national title (1995, behind Ed O’Bannon and Tyus Edney). Often in the recent past, the history of UCLA has played into the expectations more than the talent level.

Coach Ben Howland, in his third year, got the Bruins back to the top not by riding Wooden’s coattails. He did it the same way Billy Donovan did it at Florida, or Billy Gillispie at Texas A’M or Jim Larranaga at George Mason: Recruiting, selling, building a team in his own image, not what someone else thinks it should be.

“With winning, players are going to want to come to UCLA again,” said Mike Warren, the captain of the title teams in 1967 and ’68. “Now, will we win 10 championships? I don’t think so. But will we become a solid program again? No question.”

One of the few times these teams, who have never played, intersected was when Howland won a recruiting battle against Florida to get guard Jordan Farmar. The LA kid saw big things happening with the Gators, but realized he could be part of a rebuilding program – rebuilding at UCLA? – closer to home.

“Why go far away if you can have at least the same type of situation at home?” Howland said.

While no one would ever blame a kid for staying near home to attend UCLA, committing to Florida was anything but trendy before Donovan arrived. Though the head Gators are loath to admit it, Florida is a football school. Its few moments of success in hoops were always overshadowed by something:

“Maxwell took the Gators to the tournament for the first time in the late ’80s, but that experience was tainted by a drug scandal.

“Sloan, who left his second stint as Florida’s coach in the aftermath of the Maxwell troubles, was replaced briefly by Don DeVoe, who called himself “a no-nonsense guy in a nonsense program.” DeVoe lasted about nine months.

“Lon Kruger actually broke through some barriers and got the Gators to the Final Four in 1994. Two years later, he left and proclaimed that “to do in basketball what they do in football is just not possible.”

It was a statement that rankled Florida’s AD: “He and I never saw eye to eye on that,” Foley said.

“Donovan’s mentor, Rick Pitino, encouraged Donovan to stay far, far away from Florida when the offer came up to move there from Marshall.

“He just felt it was going to take a complete overhaul to turn that around and I would be better off staying with a team that was probably going to have a good year,” Donovan said.

But when Donovan joined Steve Spurrier on the athletic department’s payroll, the Gators made a new committment to hoops, trying to pull Florida out of the football-field-sized shadow that casts itself over every school in the Southeastern Conference, save Kentucky.

The new coach started locking up more Florida kids, like Udonis Haslem and Teddy Dupay, then got his first high-profile recruit from out of state, Mike Miller. Miller’s commitment raised lots of eyebrows and put the Gators among the national elite – the neighborhood UCLA used to own decades before.

“My relationship with Coach was good enough that it drew me from South Dakota,” Miller said. “That’s a long way to go to a school. He was basically like my father up there. You’ve got to be comfortable with him if you are going to go that far away.”

Today, Florida players come from everywhere.

And in an era where there are no dynasties, maybe the best that can be said for any program is that it keeps playing well enough to get back to the NCAA tournament. This is Florida’s eighth straight appearance and, though the Gators failed to get out of the first weekend the last five years, Donovan has long insisted that getting there and giving yourself chances is the key.

“We wanted to be a factor on the national scene,” Foley said. “And you can’t do that without being a player in this tournament.”

The Gators most certainly are. Now, for the second time since 2000, the once football-centric school finds itself the biggest player on basketball’s biggest stage.

UCLA has bounced back and finds itself in the same place.

A big surprise? Really, it’s hard to call any team a surprise anymore.

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