Sunday, March 25, 2007
San Jose, Calif. One was almost certainly playing his last game before trading his class schedule for instant riches in the NBA. The other will play at least once more before he, too, becomes a millionaire.
That's the way things go in college basketball, where this year's star is almost always next year's pro. An NCAA championship ring looks nice, but nicer still is a big check.
As a consolation prize for losing this game, it's not a bad one. Now Brandon Rush can spend the next week or so hiring an agent and finding a financial guy to help take care of his potential windfall.
Arron Afflalo has other plans. He's making another trip to the Final Four.
Afflalo made certain of that almost by himself Saturday, containing Rush with a gritty defensive effort on one end of the court and providing the offensive spark on the other end during a run sandwiched around halftime that told the tale of this West Regional final.
It was the kind of performance that makes NBA scouts drool, even more so because it came in the kind of game that can tell them a lot about a player. And this is a player who will be looking for an agent of his own in the next few weeks.
The way these Bruins play defense, chances are good they'll be in a second straight national championship game come a week from Monday night.
Chances are also good it will be Afflalo who puts them there.
"There's a reason why he's first-team All-American," Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Afflalo could make a case for himself as a lottery pick just based on the stat sheet against Kansas. He scored 24 points, grabbed four rebounds and got three assists - including a nifty pass into the corner to Josh Shipp for a three-
pointer as time expired to give UCLA a 35-31 halftime lead.
But the stat sheet told only part of this story. It says Afflalo played 36 minutes, but there's not a mention that he played most of those minutes even harder while defending Rush.
They went to him in this big game with two tasks - provide some offense and make sure Rush didn't hurt the team too badly.
UCLA coach Ben Howland gave him the latter almost by default when he mentioned a day earlier that, despite the prevailing theory that Kansas had no "go-to guy," he thought it would be Rush taking the early shots and that the ball would be in his hand if the game was on the line.
Afflalo's teammates liked the idea. They liked it a lot.
Rush was subdued after the loss and didn't speculate on his future. But he nearly went pro without even going to college, and there wouldn't seem to be much point in going back for his junior season when the NBA awaits.
Agents will be lurking, and friends are sure to urge him to cash in. He's grown to like school, but why study Economics 101 when you can practice it with your own money?
"If he projects out to be a high pick then I think there's a great chance that he may want to test it," Self said. "If he doesn't, I think there's a great chance he'd be back."
The questions about Afflalo's future will come later, but not much later. He declared for the draft last year, only to back out before hiring an agent, and there's little incentive for him to return for a senior year.
Unlike Rush, though, he's got a chance to turn pro with a shiny new ring on his finger.
And that would make a fat new paycheck even sweeter.