UCLA, Florida Are Undervalued and Deeply Talented

So, you wanted Duke and Connecticut in your national title game?

Well, that's too bad.

Maybe you'd perfer Villanova and Memphis on Monday night, or possibly even Texas or Gonzaga? Sorry, didn't happen, either.

What you'll have to digest before Monday night's tipoff is UCLA vs. Florida -- two of the most talented teams in the country, as well as two teams who went largely undervalued as true national contenders for most of the season.

So, let the boasting begin for the next 48 hours: The Pac-10 and the SEC, two of the most maligned conferences among the big six, can stick out their chests proudly in Indy.

"Through the NCAA Tournament, and through UCLA's performance in the Final Four, people are going to have to wake up and understand that we've got good basketball teams out West," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who was sitting in the second row of the stands in the RCA Dome, ready to wave a Pac-10 banner after UCLA's convincing 59-45 national semifinal win over LSU Saturday night.

"We were underappreciated," UCLA senior Cedric Bozeman said. "If you want to see excitement all the time, high-flying dunks, then we weren't going to give you that. We play solid defense. [As for Florida], they had a young team so people didn't expect as much out of them."

Bozeman is right on both counts. UCLA's grind-it-out, Ben Howland-based style is the anti-Showtime in L.A. But it plays well in Hollywood when there's a trophy to claim. The Bruins, injury-riddled for most of the season, were essentially led by freshmen and sophomores, save seniors Bozeman and Ryan Hollins.

Florida, which relied almost exclusively on its underclassmen -- led by guard Taurean Green, wing Corey Brewer and forwards Joakim Noah and Al Horford -- rode a similar path.

Both teams competed for their respective conference titles, but neither was expected to win. Arizona was the preseason Pac-10 favorite. Kentucky was tabbed as the team to beat in the SEC.

But UCLA takes a 12-game winning streak into Monday's title game, including a stunning, epic, final-minute comeback against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 in Oakland. Florida, which was the last unbeaten in the country at 17-0 (the Gators were defeated at Tennessee on Jan. 21, hours after Georgetown handed previously unbeated Duke its first had loss) has won 10 straight.

"This [the NCAA Tournament] is a totally different entity from the season," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who has advanced to the national title in both of his trips to the Final Four. His 2000 Gators squad lost to Michigan State in this same building. "It's got nothing to do with the regular season. I think once you get in, anything can happen."

That's true, but UCLA and Florida wouldn't be playing for the title without the confidence earned during the regular-season run. All four No. 1 seeds wouldn't have bowed out before Indy if the regular season was the final barometer. We wouldn't have witnessed George Mason's historic run to the Final Four, with wins over Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut, if the regular season was an indicator. We might not have seen LSU take out Duke and Texas to get to Indy, either, if it were only about the regular season.

Howland and Olson said UCLA's run should shine a light on the Pac-10. Arizona's near miss against Villanova in what Olson described as essentially a road game at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia; and Washington's overtime downer against Connecticut, should also be taken into account.

The Tournament also proved that the SEC's finest -- Florida and LSU -- weren't given as much respect and attention as they should have been during the regular season.

"Florida and UCLA were both young, but talent is the most important factor of it all [in getting to the Final Four]," Howland said.

Talent is what landed Donovan here for the second time -- particularly remarkable, because "he's 40," as Howland said. Donovan, who also participated in the Final Four as an assistant at Kentucky and a player at Providence, is on quite a run after Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley hired him away from Marshall 10 years ago.

Howland, meanwhile, was the first choice of UCLA Dan Guerrero three seasons ago, zeroing in on Howland while he was guiding Pitt to the Sweet 16.

"It's always been a dream to be the coach at UCLA, and I never thought it was possible," Howland said. "Steve Pederson [the AD at Nebraska but then the AD at Pitt] took an incredible chance when he hired some western schmuck from the middle of nowhere (Northern Arizona) to coach in the Big East. I'll always be indebted to him and equally indebted to Dan Guerrero [AD at UCLA].

"It was my dream job to coach at UCLA, and I wouldn't have left Pitt for any other job," Howland said. "Coach [John] Wooden said it's all about players. That's where it starts."

And that's where it ends Monday night at the RCA Dome, where some of the least-known players nationally -- players like Noah, Hollins and Lee Humphrey of Florida and UCLA's Luc Mbah A Moute -- will be playing for the national title.

Former Bruin Kareem Abdul Jabbar sat behind the UCLA bench, clad in Bruins gear, and said he was happy for the Bruins' opportunity to play in the title game, particularly because of the the great burden of tradition on players at UCLA.

The pressure to win, to win titles, is always there at UCLA. But it didn't resonate nationally with this group. The same is true at Florida. No one expected this to occur in the preseason -- at least, no one outside of their respective locker rooms.

But now two teams not predicted to play for the title will tip off Monday night, earning their shot at glory after plodding along as secondary headlines in a banner-filled season.