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Ugly Is Just Win Deep

Times Staff Writer

If UCLA wins the national championship tonight with its low-scoring offense and lock-down defense, expect copy-cat kids across America to drain basketballs of air and meet at the park to practice head-first dives onto asphalt.

Converse (high tops) sneakers will be in vogue again.

And elbow pads.

What child in America would dare be without a Lorenzo Mata face mask?

It happens all the time in sport -- the team that wins the title sets the pop-culture tone and war-room marketing strategies.

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Laker championships begat “Showtime” and the Pat Riley copyrighted “Three-Peat.”

Trend-setter football coach Steve Spurrier took his Fun ‘N Gun offense to Florida and turned the Southeastern Conference into a passing league.

Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon and spawned a headband revolution.

It should follow that a UCLA victory would produce a “Be Like Ben” Howland campaign from Nike and possibly a bobble-head doll line featuring the Bruins’ top foreign stars ... the Cameroon Crazies.

Or not.

Actually, as the game with Florida at the RCA Dome approaches, UCLA’s Brand X ball has been summoned to the court of public opinion.

UCLA has held its last two opponents, Memphis and Louisiana State, to season-low point totals of 45 and has held five NCAA tournament opponents to an average of 52.8 points a game.

Against Memphis last week, the UCLA offense produced four second-half baskets ... and won.

High school coaches love what UCLA is doing because it validates everything they teach but tends to go in one pierced ear and out the other.

“Coaches are always talking about defense, shot selection, and this is just a great example of, if you do that, do it collectively, look at what can happen to the team,” Fairfax High Coach Harvey Katani said Sunday. “What’s pretty? It’s in eyes of beholder, right?”

Whether UCLA’s cabbage-roll and coffee ball sparks the next “new” thing, though, seems less likely.

High school kids like to win, but they also like to score. They grew up in the ESPN-era of dunk contests and highlight reels.

“Phi Slama Jama” is always going to be a better nickname than “Phi Beta Blockout.”

Bob Ryan, longtime columnist for the Boston Globe, wonders whether the type of Bruin ball being played under Howland is a movement or an insomnia cure.

Ryan wasn’t just spouting off. He did a grid breakdown of the scoring of UCLA’s 11 champions and deducted that they, collectively, averaged 88 points a game in the NCAA tournament.

This UCLA team has the lowest Bruin scoring average in a half-century.

Of course, UCLA players are too absorbed in the moment to contemplate how a championship that has not yet been won will be viewed historically.

“We’re not worried about selling tickets,” sophomore guard Jordan Farmar said. “If they want to buy tickets they are more than welcome to come. If not, we’re going to play whether the stands are full or empty. We have a job to do, and we’re going to do what we need to accomplish it without worrying about outside sources.”

Former UCLA star Don MacLean, now the team’s radio analyst, said getting back to the title game after an 11-year absence is far more important than how it got back.

“Winning supercedes style all day long,” he said. “It’s not sexy, but it’s the way they’ve played. And it’s the way they’ve got other people to play the way they play. Plenty of people play good defense. We’re talking about playing great defense. This is lock down. You try to find shots against UCLA.”

There may come a day that UCLA has to justify its philosophy as it relates to the “wow” factor and cut-throat recruiting.

Wait a minute, that day was Sunday.

Less than 36 hours before title-game tip-off, Howland delivered an impassioned soliloquy in what appeared to be a damage-control effort not to have his style “pigeon-holed” against future recruiting classes.

Katani of Fairfax High says some kids may shy away from UCLA.

“It just depends on who the kids are listening to,” he said. “I think every player is different in what they’re looking for in terms of style. If a kid can’t remember a play, or a kid can’t play defense then obviously his style is to go to a place to where he get balls and scores.”

Don Johnson, former UCLA star and longtime coach at Cypress College, thinks what Howland has done will simplify recruiting.

“Ben wants tough, hard-nosed guys,” Johnson said. “Those who want individual glory, Ben isn’t going after anyway.... He’s going to have his choice. I don’t think it will hurt him at all.”

The question now: Will Howland be the first coach ever asked to apologize for winning a title?

“We like to dunk, too,” Howland said Sunday.

Portrayed by some as a hardened, blue-collar coach who brought his steel-mill approach from Pittsburgh, when he actually honed his style on the mean streets of Santa Barbara, Howland has been forced to become his own public relations man.

Sunday, he did everything but pass out pamphlets, noting for instance that his Northern Arizona teams led the country in three-point shooting, not once, not twice, but three times.

“We want to push the ball,” Howland said. “I mean, you ask these guys, we’re trying to push it. We’ll get better. This program will continue to evolve.”

The national media pushed Howland forward and Howland pushed back.

“We can play however you want to play,” Howland said.

Lately, “however” has failed to crack the 60-point barrier in its last two NCAA wins but still won by a combined 19 points.

Howland knows he’s not just playing for tonight, but also for tomorrow.

He can’t win a national title while losing hearts and minds.

The last thing Howland needs while basking in victory’s glory is to be considered the Wizard of Woodburns by top-notched players thinking they’ll come to UCLA and be fitted in body armor.

Future UCLA teams may look completely different under Howland; this one had to win this way.

“We always look for players that can put the ball in the basket,” he said. “I love guys who can shoot.”

So what that this year’s outfit isn’t a GQ cover.

“We don’t have to defend it,” Farmar said of his team’s style. “Whatever it takes. We have smart basketball players that distinguish good from bad, and that’s why we’re still playing.”

Meanwhile, nestled in the grass roots, a high school coach at Fairfax roots for Howland if only to use the lesson as a teaching tool.

“I think it’s tremendous,” Katani said of UCLA’s run. “There are a lot of different ways to play this game.”

Memphis found out last week; LSU learned on Saturday.

Tonight, Florida takes dead aim.

Many see UCLA as the odds-on pick.

Few, though, are calling it a trendy one.


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