Burlison: It Should Be a Grand Finale

Most prognosticators figured that, when all was said and done, Connecticut would be facing Duke for the 2006 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. Well, April 3 is about to roll around and the Huskies and Blue Devils have long since been eliminated. And the last teams standing Monday night in the RCA Dome? It's the Florida Gators and UCLA Bruins. Who would have thought it, even a month ago?

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – OK, raise your hands if, back in November, you thought that, come April 3, we would be watching the 2006 national championship game pitting Duke and Connecticut in the RCA Dome.


Yep. Me, too.


OK. The rest of you raise your hands if, 4 ½ months ago, you thought we might be watching UCLA and Florida hooking up on the first Monday night in April?


I thought so.


But that's one of the endearing things about college basketball (and, if I might extrapolate, life in general): Things don't always turn out the way you plan or hope, do they?


While the consensus two top-ranked teams (in the preseason and through the bulk of the regular season), with possibly seven 2006 NBA Draft first-round choices between them, are among the 63 clubs that have been bounced during a single-elimination affair that began a little past noon on March 16, either the Bruins or Gators will be cutting down nets and engaging in a wide variety of festive and celebratory activities late Monday night.


One shining moment? Indeed.


UCLA and Florida, in all probability, have just one player (Joakim Noah, as if you probably couldn't guess) who would be a sure-fire first-round choice in the next NBA Draft if all of the teams' underclassmen declared for the draft pool.


But here's another beautiful thing about college basketball: Winning championships isn't necessarily always about having a roster stocked with future (as in the immediate future) NBA players.


North Carolina (with what proved to be four lottery selections) and Illinois (in guards Deron Williams and Luther Head) produced six first-round selections a little less than three months after playing in last season's national championship final in St. Louis.


The Tar Heels and Illini were clearly the best two teams in the tournament a year ago (although Illinois cut it oh-so-close in its regional final victory over Arizona).


And, although UCLA needed a comeback comparable to the one the Illini pulled off against the Wildcats last year to edge Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, I don't think many would dispute that the Bruins and Gators are the best that the sport has to offer up at this point of the season.


They've still suiting up three days into April because they are a collection of individuals who have bought fully into their respective coaches' insistences that they play hard and unselfishly and also play soundly and intently on the defensive end.


The Gators, without question, have been more effective offensively than have the Bruins.


Of course, Florida hasn't had to face UCLA's defense – yet.


And the fact that the Bruins can win five tournament games with their top five perimeter players (Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Cedric Bozeman, Darren Collison and Michael Roll) shooting a collective .343 from the field tells you just how suffocating UCLA's defense has been.


Will be it be enough to put the clamps on the Gators?


Tune into to your local CBA affiliate to find out late Monday night – just don't do so expecting to see the Blue Devils and the Huskies.


A closer look at the championship game:

No. 2 UCLA (32-6) vs. No. 2 Florida (32-6), 9:21 p.m. ET

The Road To Indy: UCLA – Belmont, 78-44; Alabama, 62-59; Gonzaga, 73-71; Memphis, 50-45; and LSU, 59-45. Florida – South Alabama, 76-50; Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 82-60; Georgetown, 57-53; Villanova, 75-62; and George Mason, 75-58.

Records vs. tournament field: UCLA, 12-5; Florida, 12-4.

Common opponents: Albany (UCLA won, 73-65; Florida won, 83-64), LSU (UCLA won, 59-45; Florida won, 71-62 and 81-65) and Alabama (UCLA won, 62-59; Florida lost, 82-77).

Things to consider: "Defense" has been one of the themes of the 2006 tournament and no teams better embody that than do the Bruins (allowing only 52.8 points per game and .368 shooting in the tourney) and the Gators (56.6 and .344). A measure of how good UCLA has been on the defensive end is that its two best offensive players, sophomore guards Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo, are hitting just .365 and .346, respectively, from the field. A fairly compelling argument can be made that freshman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (11.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.8 steals per game in the tourney) has been the team's best post-season player. He was certainly the Bruins' most critical performer during the 59-45 victory over LSU Saturday night. Six-eleven sophomore Joakim Noah is not only the Gators' most productive player (16.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 4.6 blocked shots per game in the tourney) but he has also been the most dominating and impressive player in the entire post season.

Frank's Spin: Every time the Bruins' defense has been presented with a seemingly daunting task (slowing down Gonzaga's offense after allowing 42 first-half points; putting the cuffs on Memphis' transition attack; and keeping LSU's big man duo of Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas in check) it has responded in fine fashion. With the post combination of Noah and Al Horford, and the explosive perimeter trio of Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green to account for, this is the most difficult challenge Coach Ben Howland's team has had to cope with in 39 games. UCLA's defense will do its part but can the Bruins' offense – which has accounted for a grand total of 11 field goals, combined, in the second halves of the team's past two games – be just productive enough to generate enough points to beat the Gators?

The assumption here is yes. The Bruins win their 12th national championship, 62-59.


Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame last April, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.frankhoops.com

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