UCLA got a present befitting its status as the nation’s top-ranked
UCLA got a present befitting its status as the nation’s top-ranked team and No. 1 seed in the West Region of the NCAA tournament.
The Bruins (25-2) begin a bid for their first NCAA title in 20 years against Florida International, the 16th seed whose 11-18 record is the worst in the tournament since 1961.
Friday’s game in Boise, Idaho, is as easy as it’s going to get for UCLA. Waiting in the second round could be No. 9 Indiana, which plays No. 8 Missouri in another first-round game.
The Hoosiers (19-11) won six of their last eight Big Ten games, including a 110-79 blowout of Iowa on Sunday. UCLA humiliated its final six opponents, twice running up 100-plus totals against California and Duke.
Three years ago, Indiana routed UCLA 106-79 in the West Regional championship game in Albuquerque. Several players from that game are now seniors with integral roles.
``I haven’t looked at the second round, and I’m not going to,″ UCLA coach Jim Harrick said.
Already some of Harrick’s colleagues feel for him, knowing who likely awaits in the second round.
``Poor Jimmy Harrick, he gets to be No. 1 and he maybe gets to face (Bob) Knight in the second round,″ Long Beach State coach Seth Greenberg said.
UCLA appears to have the toughest second-round game of any region. In the East, No. 1 Wake Forest would play either Minnesota or St. Louis; in the Southeast, No. 1 Kentucky would meet either Mount St. Mary’s of Maryland or Brigham Young; and in the Midwest, No. 1 Kansas would play the winner of Western Kentucky-Michigan.
``We have to be very careful. We have to take each step as serious as possible to get better. We want to concentrate on each team and not take anybody or anything for granted,″ said Ed O’Bannon, the co-Pac-10 player of the year who leads UCLA in scoring and rebounding.
O’Bannon’s caution is the result of last year’s first-round loss to Tulsa. Several of the Bruins professed not to know where the Oklahoma school was located, which made their defeat much more galling.
``You can always motivate them by showing them the tape (of that loss),″ Harrick said, ``but this team doesn’t need that. We haven’t taken anybody lightly.″
Florida International staged three upsets to win the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament and an automatic tournament bid. Coach Bob Weltlich admitted his team is ``kind of the freak show,″ but his players realize what a win would mean.
``We’re not going out there to play around. ... We’re out there to make history,″ player James Mazyck said.
Assistant Ed Riggan added, ``We’re going out there to knock out the No. 1 team in the country.″
Connecticut (25-4) travels west as the No. 2 seed after losing to Villanova 94-78 in the Big East tournament championship game Sunday. The Huskies briefly were ranked No. 1 in the nation this season until Villanova knocked them off with a 96-73 victory on UConn’s home court.
The Huskies will play Tennessee-Chattanooga in the first round Thursday at Salt Lake City. The winner advances to a second-round game between either No. 7 Cincinnati (21-11) or No. 12 Temple (19-10).
Santa Clara (21-6), on the bubble after losing in the first round of the West Coast Conference tournament, got in as the No. 12 seed and will play No. 5 Mississippi State (20-7).
The Broncos were the conference’s regular-season champion and two years ago shocked No. 1 seed Arizona in the tournament.
No. 4 Utah (27-5), the Western Athletic Conference winner, returns to the tournament for the first time in two years. The Runnin’ Utes play No. 13 Long Beach State (20-9), which survived an overtime game against Nevada on Sunday to win the Big West Conference tournament.
``We don’t have anyone who’s statistically very impressive,″ Greenberg said. ``We might not pass great every night, but we do compete and we play hard.″
In Salt Lake City, No. 3 Maryland faces No. 14 Gonzaga, the West Coast Conference tournament winner, and No. 6 Oregon plays No. 11 Texas.
Oregon (19-8) is making its first tournament appearance in 34 years. The Ducks ended the regular season Saturday with a 94-78 loss at UCLA.
``It’s a whole new season and we’re glad to be there,″ Oregon coach Jerry Green said. ``We need to forget about all the negatives.″