Lessons Learned, UCLA Tries To Rewrite The Florida Script

Friday, March 30th 2007, 10:44 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ They say teams learn lessons from their losses. If so, UCLA should be more than ready for its rematch with Florida in the Final Four.

For 40 excruciating minutes in last year's final, the Bruins forced bad shots, played tentative defense, got outhustled and outcoached.

``Just about everything we could have done better,'' UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

A year after Florida's 73-57 victory, most of the players on both teams remain the same. It's up to the Bruins to try to force a different result in Saturday's semifinals.

Easier said than done.

Yes, UCLA has four key players, including Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, back from last year's debacle. But Florida brought back all five starters.

Yes, UCLA has spent a year being motivated by its loss, for failing to bring a 12th championship to Pauley Pavilion. But Florida has spent the same year trying to prove it can win it all again, and become the first team to repeat since 1992 and the first to win consecutive titles with the same starting five.

Florida coach Billy Donovan has tried to disconnect this season from last.

``I think we're a changed basketball team,'' he insisted. ``I think when you go through the experiences we went through last year, we're all different. I think the coaches are different, the players are different, your team's different.''

By different, Howland insists that what Donovan really means is ``better.''

And who's to argue?

While their stats are all hovering around where they were last year, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Co. have played from the front this year, haven't snuck up on anyone and, with that burden, have still tied last year's school record with 33 victories.

They have overcome adversity, going on their current eight-game winning streak after losing three of four near the end of the regular season.

They have overcome doubters and haters, from those who questioned them for their decisions to return to college, to those who booed and ridiculed them in almost every visiting arena they played in.

Now, they're trying to overcome the distraction of Donovan's future, which has been thrown into question with the sudden departure of Tubby Smith at Kentucky.

``I really don't know if mental toughness is something that can be learned,'' Donovan said. ``I think as you get older, you get more mature. I think you can handle it better. But I think our guys have been through a lot. They understand what type of mind-set they need to be in to play to the very best of our ability.''

UCLA is in very much the same place, only without the title.

Well, actually, the Bruins have plenty of titles. But this group has yet to add a banner to the rafters, which are reserved only for national championships _ not for winning the Pac-10, advancing in the NCAAs or any other accomplishment that lesser programs celebrate.

Afflalo keeps a picture in his room from last year's final _ one that shows him sitting on the bench with a bowed head in the final seconds.

Brewer shut Afflalo down on the perimeter that night in Indianapolis last year. Noah blocked six shots and altered many others. Afflalo shot 3-for-10 and never got into a rhythm.

``Coach Howland yells at me every day ... because guys are constantly jumping at my jump shot,'' Afflalo said after UCLA beat Kansas last week. ``Just got to do a better job of reading it next time because there's a possibility you can face those type of defenders once again.''

Also returning for UCLA are big men Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata. Mbah a Moute was dominant last year in the semifinal win against LSU, but a nonfactor against Florida. Darren Collison came off the bench last season but is the starting guard opposite Afflalo this year. Josh Shipp was hurt for most of last season, but returned this year and averages 13 points.

``We have very good players. Obviously they have great players,'' Howland said.

Everyone knows the difference between very good and great.

It's winning.