It's March Madness, so brush off your brackets, enter your office pool and cheer for two Jewish UCLA Bruins, one male, one female, as they head into the big dance.
Sophomore point guard Jordan Farmar led UCLA to their most successful regular season play since the season leading up to the team's 1995 National Championship. The 13th-ranked Bruins (27-6) nabbed the Pac-10 Conference regular season title, won the Pac-10 Conference Tournament title and are headed into the national championship tournament as a No. 2 seed.
Last year, the Bruins fell in the first round of March Madness to Texas Tech. But this year, the team is playing much improved basketball, and Farmar considers himself a better team leader.
"I'm just more mature," said Farmar, who gritted through a season plagued with severely sprained right and left ankles. "When you step up in big situations and do the little things, your teammates respond to you better as a leader. I just had time to improve on that from last year to this year."
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound guard, averages 30.1 minutes, 2.7 rebounds and 13.6 points per game. He has 164 assists on the season. He started in 31 games. Considered one of the elite point guards in the nation, he was named to the all Pac-10 team, the all Pac-10 Tournament team and is a John Wooden Award, Bob Cousy Award and Naismith Trophy candidate.
In conversation, Farmar is polite, bright and courteous. On the court, he runs a successful offense, plays aggressive defense and can steer his team to victory in tight game situations. He's fiercely competitive and stays focused, even when his team falls behind.
"It's not nerve-wracking at all. We just have to stay composed and keep doing what we've been doing. When we play defense, rebound and play together, good things happen," said Farmar, whose Bruins let their 16-point lead slip to just 3 points at the half, before coming back to a 71-59 victory over the Cal Bears in last Saturday's Pac-10 Tournament Championship. Farmar scored 19 points in the game.
Although he doesn't consider himself religious, Farmer says he is proud of his Jewish heritage and is happy to speak about his Jewish upbringing. He was bar mitzvahed at Temple Judea and is very close to his mother and stepfather, Melinda and Yehuda Kolani, who raised him in a Jewish home and took him to Israel on family vacations. He is also tight with his father, former pro-baseball player Damon Farmar, who mentored his son in sports.
"My family always comes out to the games; it's the main reason I stayed at home. It's great to be able to play in front of them," Farmar said with a smile.
A Van Nuys native and Taft High School graduate, Farmar enjoys playing for UCLA, especially in front of his hometown crowd.
"I love it. To always have some people behind you is a great thing. It helps you out defensively, with intensity, and gives you that extra edge," Farmar said.
The Bruins will kick off this week's NCAA tournament playing close to home, meeting No. 15 seed Belmont in San Diego.
Next year, Ortal Oren will return home to play professional basketball in Israel. But this year, the UCLA guard is thrilled to be playing in the NCAA tournament. On March 6, the Bruins (20-10) rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to win its first-ever Pac-10 Women's Basketball Tournament title over the 11th-ranked Stanford. With their 85-76 overtime win, the Bruins clinched an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. "Nobody expected us to win; we went in as the underdogs. The win feels great," said Oren, who wears the number 00 because it doubles as her initials.
Oren and the Bruins are under more pressure than other teams in the national tournament, whose schools run on the semester system. UCLA, which runs on the quarter system, starts winter finals next week. Both the men's and women's teams will take their exams and are expected to juggle studying for finals with intense pre-tournament practice.
"This week, I don't have time for anything but basketball and school," said Oren, a psychology major. "I have to do well in both."
Oren comes from a family of athletes. Her father, Ronen Oren, is the director of the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Academy, and her mother, Ronit Gazit, was a competitive Israeli high jumper. Oren was heavily recruited by colleges after leading Kiriat-Sharet High School to back-to-back Israeli championship teams, and says she is proud to have spent four years as a Bruin.
"I would never trade this UCLA experience for anything in the world. It's the place I matured as a player, in personality, in everything, and the relationships I created with my teammates -- I couldn't ask for anything else," the 5-foot-9, Rishon-Lezion native said. "It's my second home."
She hopes to return to the United States to play in the WNBA.
The No. 5 seed UCLA will meet No. 12 seed Bowling Green in the first round of tournament play. Going far in the NCAA tournament means a lot to Oren, not just as a graduating senior, but also as an Israeli.
"Israel is my home. And when I play, I'm not just representing my family, but my whole country," said Oren, who averages 11.1 minutes, 1.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 3 points per game.
For UCLA fans, it's a treat to follow two Bruin teams, both featuring Jewish players, in March Madness 2006.
"It's nice to have both the men's and women's programs at UCLA sweep the conference tournaments this year," UCLA men's coach Ben Howland said. "That's a fun thing for our program and our school."