How do you respond? That at UCLA you’d better be knocking at the Final Four door by your fourth season? “I don’t know who says we’re a year away,” he said. “Probably the same experts that didn’t think the Pac-10 had very good basketball teams.” But no one could have known this year’s freshman class would make such a significant impact. A year ago, Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Josh Shipp and Lorenzo Mata gave the Bruins one of the most highly regarded freshman classes in the country. The first three all became immediate starters. This year’s class was more of an unknown. Two players came via Cameroon, Luc Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya. Ryan Wright was from Canada. Darren Collison was a point guard who figured to get little time behind Farmar. Yet senior Cedric Bozeman, coming off knee surgery, sensed once he was cleared to practice and started playing with the freshmen and local pros during summer pickup games at UCLA, the Bruins were on to something. “I saw the talent that we had,” Bozeman said. “I started thinking about the players we had returning, and them mixing in with some veterans and thought once we had a chance to jell, we had a shot at something special.” Senior Ryan Hollins, the only other upperclassman who plays, saw it too. “We were three teams deep of guys that could play,” Hollins said. “That was something I’d never seen at UCLA. We were competitive and going at it. The freshmen were playing us neck-and-neck. There were no advantages in the battles. “A couple of pros came over to us and said, ‘You could have a Final Four team. With this talent, there’s no reason why you can’t go all the way.’ So I knew it was always possible.” They were on to it long before most of the college basketball world. The Bruins lost Shipp to hip surgery. Bozeman was moved from point guard to small forward. The 6-foot-7 Mbah a Moute, expected to be a small forward, moved to power forward when Aboya had knee surgery. It didn’t scream the makings of greatness, even after the Bruins started the season 20-6. “I really didn’t expect this was going to happen this year,” Collison said. “It surprised me a little bit. “But we worked so hard. When you are dedicated and sacrifice, things will surprise you. Everything is paying off now.” The lightning-quick Collison proved a spark plug, a dramatic change of pace off the bench. Mbah a Moute has started all but one game and been an inspiration. Aboya returned from knee surgery to provide depth in the frontcourt. Meanwhile, sophomores Afflalo and Farmar led the Bruins in scoring. The kids weren’t just all right, they were special. “We always thought it was a realistic possibility now,” Farmar said. “We weren’t saying we’re going to get better and play for the national championship next year. As long as we’re still in the fight, we had a chance to do it this year.” Florida coach Billy Donovan led the Gators to the championship game seven years ago at age 33, in which they lost to Michigan State. He longs to turn Florida into a national college basketball power, but few figured it would be this season when he returned only two starters. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Donovan said. But sophomores Joakim Noah and Taurean Green, and junior Lee Humphrey seamlessly joined returning starting sophomores Al Horford and Corey Brewer and the Gators jumped out to 17-0 start. They hit a 5-6 stretch in the middle of the season, but now have won their past 10. “The main piece has been their willingness to remain extremely unselfish, their ability not to embrace success,” Donovan said. “That’s the hardest thing that happens to a team when you get to 17-0. You can think it’s easy or that you have it all figured out. “They really remained very humble. They wanted to get better.” Two young teams battling for college basketball’s grand prize. And this might not be some one-time deal. With players jumping to the NBA early, college superstars seldom remain after their sophomore seasons. Donovan said he might avoid recruiting the top 25 national high school seniors in the future to concentrate on the next 75 who are more likely to stay with a program and graduate. “It’s been so long since we’ve had three or four guys in a junior or senior class,” he said. “We’ve always had young people.” Howland considers his current youth wave more a cycle. Anyway, that’s his hope. But for tonight, all is possible. Two teams arrive a year earlier than expected, raw no longer. And tonight youth will be served. “I know people say we’re a year away,” Bozeman said, “but we’re here now and enjoying the moment.” Steve Dilbeck’s column appears in the Daily News four times a week. He can be reached at [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! INDIANAPOLIS – It’s an early arrival. A rebirth for one and an ascent for another few saw coming. Not this year, anyway. Not right now. Not tonight. UCLA and Florida will meet for the NCAA men’s basketball championship tonight, and will play with rosters dominated by sophomores and freshmen, led by players still in their teens. They are basketball prodigies, pushed by strong-willed coaches, phenoms who have thrust themselves onto the national stage, ready or not. The Bruins start two sophomores and a freshman. Of the first four players off their bench, three are freshmen and one a sophomore. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREOregon Ducks football players get stuck on Disney ride during Rose Bowl event Florida lost its three leading scorers from last season. It starts four sophomores and three of its first four reserves are freshmen. If these teams were any younger, they’d have to be burped. They’d be at home watching Bert and Ernie, not absorbing game film in hotel rooms. This is Ben Howland’s third year at UCLA, his third season trying to return the storied Bruins to college basketball’s elite, though operating with only his second recruiting class. They have arrived a year earlier than expected, at least by most. “Did you think we’d make the Final Four in my fourth season?” asked Howland, making his razor-like eye contact.