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.

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