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Bruins face Florida with something to prove

Bruins face Florida with something to prove
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Ben Howland's Bruins know beating Florida would prove last season's swoon is behind them

TAMPA – UCLA coach Ben Howland suffered two of the most crushing losses of his career to Florida in back-to-back seasons.

His roster is stocked with southern California residents who watched both those games on TV, so the Bruins obviously are relying on the revenge motive as they get ready to face Florida in the NCAA tournament once again, right?

Not exactly.

"We don't need what happened in the past to motivate us any more," Howland said. "This is the NCAA tournament. If you don't win, your season is over. I think our team is plenty motivated and would be no matter who we're playing.''

Florida whipped UCLA 73-57 in the 2006 championship game, then ousted the Bruins again 76-66 one year later in a national semifinal. The second-seeded Gators (27-7) and seventh-seeded Bruins (23-10) meet again Saturday in a Southeast Regional game at the St. Pete Times Forum.

But while UCLA fans continue sending players Facebook posts and Tweets seeking revenge, the Bruins are focusing instead on the here and now. The Bruins want this win because they realize a victory over a No. 2 seed would signal that UCLA has re-emerged as a national contender after last season's fall from grace.

"We need to make a run in this tournament, starting tomorrow," junior guard Malcolm Lee said Friday. "Play hard, relentless and fearless, and get that defense that UCLA's known for back on the map.

"If we make a run in this tournament, we'll start opening some eyes around the country."

The Bruins made three consecutive Final Four appearances in 2006-08 before becoming victims of their own success. UCLA currently has 14 players in the NBA, more than any other school. That surely helps Howland quite a bit on the recruiting trail, but it has hindered the Bruins on the floor the past two seasons as the lure of the NBA decimated the roster.

The stars of the 2008 Final Four team were freshman forward Kevin Love and sophomore guard Russell Westbrook, lottery picks who turned pro after that season. Howland lost three senior starters from his 2009 team, as well as guard Jrue Holiday, another lottery selection who entered the draft after his freshman season.

Some of the guys who were supposed to replace those early entrants made their own early exits. Former five-star recruit J'mison Morgan headed to Baylor and former top-50 prospect Drew Gordon left for New Mexico after disappointing UCLA stints.

All those roster changes forced Howland to rebuild on the fly. The results weren't pretty, as UCLA went 14-18 last season and lost to the likes of Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State.

"It showed us what we needed to do in order to be successful again," sophomore forward Reeves Nelson said. "It was a reality check for everyone that nothing was going to be given to us. We had to work hard if we wanted to have success."

This season, Howland has the type of team that should match up well with Florida. UCLA tied for the Pac-10 lead in rebound margin and should be able to compete with Florida's deep frontcourt on the glass. Lee, a good perimeter defender, could help the Bruins slow hot-shooting guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton.

The teams also have similar balance. Florida has five players averaging between 8.6 and 14.5 points per game; UCLA has five averaging between 9.2 and 13.9.

"If you look at it on paper, at basically every position we match up with each other pretty well with size and with what guys are able to do," Bruins freshman center Josh Smith said. "It's going to be a battle. The team that plays better defense and takes care of the ball is going to win."

One thing they don't have in common is experience. Florida features three senior starters, while UCLA occasionally makes mistakes characteristic of a team with no seniors on its roster.

UCLA opened this tournament Thursday by blowing most of a 23-point lead in the final 8½ minutes of a 78-76 victory over Michigan State. The Bruins entered the week with a combined 32 minutes (19 from Lee, 13 from reserve guard Jerime Anderson) of NCAA tournament experience. Nobody on the roster had scored a point in a tourney game.

Perhaps some nerves were inevitable, though that doesn't excuse going 3-of-12 from the free-throw line in the final 91 seconds.

"I'm excited about our young team," Howland said. "We don't have a senior on this club. We finished one game out of first in the Pac-10 and had a chance [to win the league] going into the last weekend. Obviously [Thursday] was a great win for us, and now there's another opportunity to play against a great team in the NCAA tournament."

Now comes an opportunity for UCLA to advance to the Sweet 16 and prove last season's disaster was a fluke.

Revenge would be sweet. Respect would be sweeter.

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