Sunday, April 02, 2006

Howland To Team: "We're Playing The Florida Tigers"

All over Gainesville this weekend, fans are shouting “Go Gators!” However, UCLA head coach Ben Howland is calling his NCAA championship game opponent by a different name. Howland is insisting that his players refer to Florida as the Tigers.

The Bruin coach conceived this strategy based on his team’s previous two victories. UCLA defeated the Memphis Tigers 50-45 to advance to the Final Four. Yesterday the Bruins dominated the LSU Tigers 59-45. Therefore, it makes sense for Howland to convince his players that they are taking on another set of Tigers. With his team on board, he believes that UCLA will also hold Florida to 45 points.

The Tiger phenomenon is not a new development for UCLA. The signature win of the program’s last national title run in 1995 was a last-second thriller over the Missouri Tigers, thanks to Tyus Edney’s full-court dash. The school’s previous Final Four appearance in 1980 was earned due to a regional final victory over the Clemson Tigers. And in 1973, John Wooden captured his seventh consecutive national title with a triumph over the Memphis State Tigers. Bill Walton shot an amazing 21 for 22 from the floor in that contest. If he had been facing the Memphis State Bulldogs, he would have been lucky to make half his shots.

However, UCLA’s fortunes versus Tigers took a turn for the worse after the 1995 national title. In 1996 the Princeton Tigers stunned the defending champions 43-41 as Pete Carril outfoxed the UCLA head coach. I did not mention that Bruin leader by name because it seemed ridiculous to include Princeton and Jim Harrick in the same sentence. The Missouri Tigers eliminated UCLA in the 2002 Sweet 16, and the Bruins regularly lost to Stanford, alma mater of Tiger Woods. The school was even denied entrance to the American League Central, depriving it of the opportunity to dominate the Detroit Tigers.

Howland’s hiring in 2003 ensured that things would be different in Westwood. He made two pledges in his initial press conference as the UCLA coach. First, his teams would always be tenacious on defense. Secondly, the Bruins would not lose tournament games to Tigers. Those promises are evident in Howland’s mantra: “Defense wins championships. Tigers don’t.”

Knowing the effectiveness of Howland’s approach, Florida head coach Billy Donovan continues to emphasize that his team is not called the Tigers. Donovan has arranged for groups of Florida supporters to tail the UCLA team, shouting “Go Gators!” Florida stars Joakim Noah and Taurean Green were seen walking around their hotel lobby, holding signs proclaiming, “I’m a Gator – Not a Tiger!” Donovan even enlisted the aid of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. Irwin e-mailed his SportsCenter commercial to UCLA guards Jordan Farmar and Aaron Afflalo, noting, “Crikey! That’s not a tiger I’ve got a hold of!”

It remains to be seen if Howland’s strategy will pay off with a championship. Even if his players do not believe that they are facing the Tigers, Howland has a back-up plan. Florida’s previous championship game appearance resulted in a loss to Michigan State in 2000. So tomorrow night, UCLA will be led onto the court by Mateen Cleaves.