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Thursday, March 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:56 PM


Bud Withers

Rather than Zag, Farmar zigged to UCLA

Seattle Times colleges reporter

OAKLAND, Calif. — Jordan Farmar was going to be a Zag, and what a fit he would have been: seeing the floor, drilling the open three, controlling the pace and the game like he has a joystick in his hand.

"He would have fit in fine," said Adam Morrison, who would have helped make Farmar one of the nation's assist leaders. "He just made his own decision."

Tonight, when Gonzaga meets UCLA in one of the most anticipated NCAA regional semifinals, Farmar will be wearing the wrong colors as far as the Zags are concerned, those of the Pac-10 champion Bruins.

He is probably the key to the game — that, and how well Gonzaga defends him.

Unfortunately, three years ago in the recruiting process, Gonzaga couldn't defend against UCLA.

"Billy did a great job on him," said Zags coach Mark Few, referring to assistant coach Bill Grier. "The team did a great job. We thought we were going to get him."

There was one thing Few and Co. couldn't control, the factor they were most wary about all along. The Steve Lavin regime was skidding to a certain finish, and everybody in the business knew Ben Howland was angling for the job.

He got it. And not many months later, Farmar, the 6-foot-2 product of Taft High School in Los Angeles, announced he was headed for Westwood.

"He was critical," Howland said. "Everything starts with having a point guard."

This matchup has the fabric of some rich story lines. One is that it pits the college game's most storied program, the one with 11 national championships, against the school that has come the farthest the fastest.

Gonzaga vs. UCLA

Where: Oakland (Oakland Arena). When: 6:57 p.m. today. TV: Ch. 7. Radio: KJR (950 AM). The line: UCLA by 3.

There's a popular subtext heard from some national analysts: This is for recruiting turf on the West Coast, for the edge in the living rooms of high-school kids with busy pituitaries.

It's a nice notion, but, uh, forget it.

UCLA is UCLA, always and forever. It may be a place with a relatively tepid fan base, even in basketball. It's still UCLA. Pauley Pavilion may be airy and outdated. But it's still UCLA.

Inside the Morgan Center — the athletic department enclave — there's a famous photograph of Lew Alcindor, rising seemingly to impossible heights over some unfortunate 1960s knaves below. Sort of like King Kong dominating the skyline of New York City, which is where Alcindor came from.

That's the sway UCLA holds with recruits. It's a food-chain fact of life that's not about to change with a mere 40 minutes against Gonzaga.

More than three decades ago, Oregon State made a valiant run at a Los Angeles prospect, believing UCLA might be overlooking him. Then John Wooden, the fabled Bruins coach, made a call, and Marques Johnson came aboard, to become college player of the year.

"This is UCLA," Howland said grandly. "UCLA sells itself."

But just in case you're not convinced, Howland, a SoCal product, will gladly become an audio recruiting brochure. He becomes the baron of bombast when discussing the place.

"Anybody that wants to come visit the campus," he said, "tours are available daily."

Thanks, Ben, but we've got a game tonight.

Howland references another photo of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (originally Alcindor) and Bill Walton, holding their retired UCLA jerseys, calling them the best two collegians in history (and he might just be right). He goes on about the academic credentials of the school, saying that the average entering freshman grade-point average is 4.2 (because of advanced-placement classes) on a scale of 4.0.

Chances are Farmar was more taken by the 11 title banners fluttering in Pauley's rafters than he was the thousands of freshman applicants Howland says the school rejects every year.

"UCLA is so much more than just basketball," Farmar insisted Wednesday. "Being from L.A., wearing those four letters across your chest, knowing what that means, it was a no-brainer."

And so you cope. Tonight, if you're Gonzaga, you try to bother Farmar out high to disrupt tempo when he gets a ball screen, and you do your darnedest to keep him out of the lane.

"He's great when he gets into the paint," Grier said. "He's really good at finding guys."

And when the game's over, win or lose, you track the next L.A. kid. The Zags are hard after 6-9 Austin Daye, a junior who happens to be the son of Darren Daye, a prominent Bruins forward from 1980 to 1983. The younger Daye has been compared to Tayshaun Prince, the spidery NBA forward.

Currently, Gonzaga is battling USC and Arizona State, with UCLA playing it cool. Surely, the Zags know the drill, in force in L.A. since John Wooden was rolling up programs on the bench in the mid-1960s:

Beware the Bruins.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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