March 30, 2007

Final Four: UCLA

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A walk through UCLA’s Westwood campus reveals the striking diversity of the school. Actors and filmmakers cavort with doctors, future lawyers and frat boys on Gayley Avenue. The cobbled sidewalks are lined with palm trees and an enormous Bruin statue reflects the evening sunset. It is a university in paradise and the envy of every other college in the nation.

It is also home to the most successful NCAA basketball program of all-time. A campus tour could easily overlook Pauley Pavilion — the Bruins’ arena is a bland edifice that meshes undistinguished with its surroundings. However, it is more difficult to miss the 11 NCAA title banners hanging from the rafters — more than any other college basketball team in the country.

Unprecedented success in the NCAA tournament and Beverly Hills magic aside, this year’s Bruins are a lock for the championship because they have a taste for blood. These Bruins are not the gentle, fish-catching giants of Animal Planet documentaries. They are the hungry, violent and limb-crushing bears from When Animals Attack!

The Bruins will not be denied. Last season, UCLA was manhandled by Florida in the National championship game. The Bruins’ struggles were mirrored by the play of celeb guard Arron Affalo, who shot 3-for-10 and finished with a paltry 10 points.

Florida played impeccably to win the championship in 2006. A repeat performance against a better skilled and more mature Bruin squad is impossible.

Affalo and his teammates are foaming at the opportunity to avenge last year’s meltdown. By the grace of the basketball gods, UCLA opens the Final Four against Florida. Now, the Bruins have a win-or-die mentality. Picture a deranged bear marauding a cluster of confused alligators and then eating their eggs. Tomorrow’s game is going to go something like that.

Bruins coach Ben Howland rescued the program from the dark ages of Steve Lavin and has his players expecting to win the championship. Howland’s defense-first philosophy smothered an explosive Kansas team in the Elite Eight — a performance that elicited compliments from UCLA shaman John Wooden. Guys like Darren Collison and Luc Richard “Where the hell am I from?” Mbah a Moute have stifled opponents and opened up space for Affalo’s hot hand. Sophomore forward Josh Shipp might be the most underrated player in the entire tournament. And — most importantly — Florida’s free-throw shooters don’t have a chance with UCLA’s Perfect 10 cheerleaders bouncing on the sidelines.

My subordinate-turned-boss Olivia “Intramural Sport is My Religion” Dwyer is selecting Florida to both beat UCLA and win its second consecutive National title. Since her choice cannot be attributed to reason, analysis or any other kind of discernible intellectual exercise, it must be assumed that she picked the Gators after six or so rounds of beer shot-gunning contests with overzealous frat boys. Or perhaps she has some twisted crush on Joakim Noah, the grotesque love-child of Jar-Jar Binks and a pineapple.

Tim “Sweaty Dudes in Tights is My Bag, Baby” Kuhls chose Georgetown to win. I was under the impression that the Hoyas’ program had folded after Iverson left in 1996, but apparently the university pried enough bench players from Duke and Pittsburgh to post a sparkling 76-90 Big East record leading up to this season. Georgetown’s stumble into the Final Four marks its first appearance in 22 years — and for good reason. The Ewing namesake may have landed Jr. a roster spot but it certainly did not guarantee him any on-court talent. Unfortunately, my colleague’s head is too wrapped in spandex to see the Georgetown squad for the farce it truly is.

Finally, Cory “1908” Bennett believes the Buckeyes will emerge as the new kings of Hotlanta. Before the tournament, I may not have censured such a choice as vehemently as I will now. Yet, after watching Ohio State squeak past Xavier before doing everything possible to lose to Tennessee, it is clear this team is simply another Buckeyes squad aching to choke on the national stage. Freshman behemoth Greg Oden is only one unregistered glock away from becoming the next Maurice Clarett and my colleague’s pick will soon prove to be as well-informed as allowing Ryan Dempster to be a big-league closer.

So pack your gator traps, dog leashes and tree saws because the Bruins are two wins away from their 12th National title. The trophy is coming home to L.A.