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UCLA takes third straight shot at NCAA Tournament title

SAN ANTONIO, Texas —UCLA junior Luc Richard Mbah a Moute doesn't have to be reminded about history.

He and his Bruin teammates are in the Final Four for a third straight year, something that's extraordinary, especially in this age of increasing parity in college basketball. Only Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State have matched or bettered that streak since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985.

But the Bruins are 0-for-2 of late, losing to Florida in the 2006 final and again to the eventual two-time champion Gators in the semifinals last year. Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State all got theirs, at least one shining moment, during their runs.

"Losing again would be a great disappointment," Mbah a Moute said Friday afternoon as his team prepared for tonight's national semifinal against Memphis. North Carolina and Kansas meet in the second game as all four No. 1 seeds reached this stage for the first time. "Anything less than a championship at UCLA is kind of a failure."

Thank iconic coach John Wooden for that. He won 10 NCAA titles in a 12-year period. In Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins immortalize those seasons by hanging championship banners from the rafters. An 11th went up after their win in 1995.

The Bruins don't bother with mere reminders of Final Four appearances.

Talk about March Madness.

"We're trying not to think about it," All-America freshman center Kevin Love said of the pressure to win a title, "but it's there."

"Pressure is good," coach Ben Howland said. "They thrive on it. That's what it's like to be at UCLA; there's high expectations. The expectations are winning every time you go out."

The Bruins (35-3) have done that for the most part, winning 97 games the past three seasons, a school record. The only team to win more during that same period has been Memphis (37-1) with 103 wins, but the Tigers failed to advance beyond the Elite Eight in 2006 and 2007.

"It's incredible what they've done," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who took his Spartans to the Final Four in 1999 in St. Petersburg, beat Florida in 2000 for the title and made it back to the Final Four in 2001. "You've got to have incredible players, not only good players, but mentally tough players because you're riding that wave where everybody's shooting for you."

Howland, in his fifth season in Westwood after stops at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, has had more of a challenge than simply a bull's-eye. Like many elite programs, he has had players leave early for the NBA. Guard Jordan Farmar left after scoring a game-high 18 in the '06 loss. Guard Arron Afflalo left after last year's loss.

Howland also was simultaneously changing the philosophy. Defending and rebounding and grinding out games, as unglamorous as that might be in a city renowned for glitz (remember Showtime?).

"Do you know how hard that is?" Memphis coach John Calipari said. "Especially in this day and age, where kids are hearing how good they are, that they do nothing wrong. They're coached in the summers. They just go do what they want to do. All of a sudden you're going to go to UCLA, one of the most storied programs, and you're going to guard. If you don't guard, you're not playing. You're going to be physical. You're going to rebound, be tough. We're not going to play as fast as you want to play. … For him to do that in L.A., it just blows me away."

But can the Bruins blow away the Tigers tonight?

Memphis is a slight favorite.

"We're always underdogs for some reason, it's cool," junior point guard Darren Collison said. "I don't want to say it's disrespect, but I don't think we get enough credit like deserve to."

That might have a lot to do with what the Bruins have done once they've reached this particular point in the season. Or more precisely, what they haven't done.

"The guys feel good about every Final Four they've attended because they know how difficult it is (to get there)," Howland said. "Prior to our first Final Four two years ago, there'd been one Final Four at UCLA in (more than) 20 years. So even at UCLA, it's a special thing to go to a Final Four. But yet, a banner is put up in Pauley Pavilion only when you win a national championship."

"Three straight Final Fours is a great accomplishment," senior center Lorenzo Mata-Real said. "If you don't tell people we've been to three straight Final Fours, when they walk into Pauley Pavilion, they don't know that. We definitely want that championship banner."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

UCLA takes third straight shot at NCAA Tournament title 04/04/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2008 11:48pm]
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