INDIANAPOLIS — The Tradition, all 7 feet, 3 inches of him, was walking out of the RCA Dome Saturday night, expressing his admiration for the UCLA Bruins.
"They play 40 minutes," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. "Everybody plays hard. That's the mark of a great team."
A few feet away was another splash of The Tradition.
"They're making me look smart," bubbled Steve Lavin, the ESPN analyst and the last coach of the Bruins. "I had them picked before the tournament."
So, honk if you believed back in December the Pac-10 was going to have a team in the national-championship game. Make it two honks if you're just a little afraid the tectonic plates have shifted in the West and it's about to be UCLA's world and everybody else is scraping together rent money.
Three years to the day after Ben Howland was hired at UCLA, the Bruins find themselves in the title game tonight against Florida. They've gotten there extraordinarily fast, surely ahead of Howland's schedule.
"I knew we had a lot of recruiting to do," Howland said Sunday, sneaking a hint of an answer into another rambling dialogue with the media.
One of college basketball's enduring themes was revisited time and again with the Bruins on the eve of the title game — the UCLA tradition, and assorted subplots thereof.
Funny thing about that tradition, portrayed to be the game's thickest. It really isn't as deep as that at Kentucky or Indiana or Kansas. What it is, is a scintillating, mad, 15-year bender for the ages from about 1960 to 1975 under John Wooden, then a lot of guys who tried to succeed him littered by the roadside.
Gene Bartow was too thin-skinned. Larry Brown was too itinerant, Larry Farmer too inept, Jim Harrick too crooked. Lavin, who took the Bruins to a bunch of Sweet 16s, was too inconsistent.
Flashes of brilliance have interceded. Brown got the Bruins to the 1980 title game before indulging his greener-pastures jones. Harrick won the 1995 NCAA championship, then was whisked out of the job for lying about falsified expense reports.
There hasn't been anything approaching sustained consistency and harmony in the program since Wooden poured footings for his renowned, so-called pyramid of success (using, of course, guys like Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, and Bill Walton).
Enter Howland. He may blow smoke, but he has assembled a young team around a style that so far has proved unbeatable. All the Bruins do is play harder, get the loose balls, control the pace, run when it's there, rebound better and frustrate offenses to no end.
And oh yeah, they hang in there, as Gonzaga will tell you. True, by rights the Bruins should be back on campus, hooping in the rec center. But if their near-miss against the Zags was a pardon from execution, it's also a fact that they've made top-seeded Memphis and SEC regular-season champion LSU look downright comical.
"It's substance," said senior Cedric Bozeman, referring to the Bruins' approach, "over style."
When you play great defense — an asset that doesn't disappear when somebody bolts for the NBA — players rotate like magnets to the right spot and good things seem to happen.
"I've never seen Glen Davis miss five gimmes around the goal," lamented LSU coach John Brady.
Seven days earlier, there was this from Memphis coach John Calipari: "We picked a day to miss 15 one-footers."
Remember, UCLA was an injury-wracked team for much of the season, from Alfred Aboya's knee to Bozeman's shoulder to Josh Shipp's hip to Lorenzo Mata's broken leg. Some believed Shipp, the 6-5 sophomore forward who missed almost the whole season, would have been UCLA's best player.
Said Howland, "This team has gone through more adversity with injuries than any team I've ever heard of."
Howland will also tell you there hasn't yet been a truly bountiful, top-shelf year of high-school recruits in Los Angeles in his time, but incoming is 6-8 McDonald's All-American James Keefe. Doubtless, UCLA's tournament infomercials won't hurt with two Oregon junior prep All-Americans that everybody wants, 6-9 Kevin Love and 6-8 Kyle Singler.
"I don't know who says we're a year away," Howland sniffed. "Probably the same experts who said the Pac-10 didn't have very good basketball teams, etc., etc."
Well, mostly, it didn't. But who's to argue with Howland? His team is still standing, he's at a destination job. And in the Bruins' endless quest to replace John Wooden, suddenly he — and they — look very good.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com