David finally gets his shot at Goliath. Fresno State, those little big guys from upstate, get their long-delayed introduction to UCLA, the descendants of the big big guys.
Saturday night, in the quarterfinal round of the National Invitation Tournament, they'll meet for the first time. By the grace of a tournament committee that doesn't seem oblivious to the magic of UCLA's name, the game will be in Pauley Pavilion.
There, the Bruins will be about a three-point favorite. In Fresno's Selland Arena, which has been sold out since 1979, where the Bulldogs were 15-1 this season and are 103-12 in eight years under Boyd Grant, UCLA would have been about a four-point underdog.
"Wish you were coming up here," Grant told UCLA's Walt Hazzard on a phone hookup Thursday. "I'd just love to shake your hand up here. You'd be really popular here."
Grant added, in jest, that since they couldn't play in Selland, Pauley was his second choice.
Said Hazzard: "My first choice was here, but my second choice wasn't Fresno State."
Hazzard's task is to make sure his home team can tell it's the home team. So far the Bruins' NIT crowds have been 4,820, the second-lowest in Pauley history, and 7,882. Fresno fans might have bought 7,882 tickets to Pauley themselves, if they could have gotten there hands on them.
So at Thursday's media breakfast, Hazzard issued an appeal to Southern California fans of all denominations to come out, including those from USC. It wasn't the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but it was close.
"I just want to see more blue than red," Hazzard said, grinning. "Tell the Trojan fans to put some blue on."
Other strategies include sending Fresno a limited number of tickets. The first allotment was 4,300. There is not expected to be a second allotment.
"I just hope there are no tickets left for them," Hazzard said. "I'd like to see blue and gold. Anyone wearing red should have to wear a trench coat."
In Fresno, tickets were selling faster than trench coats. Lines formed at the ticket office at 8 a.m., two hours before it opened.
"I'm sure there were people out there all night," Fresno State publicist Scott Johnson said. "We could sell 5,000-6,000. Plus, it'll be on TV here."
The matchup is a natural, if awaited with less eagerness here than in Fresno. The Bruins are famous. The Bulldogs, NIT champions in 1983, have a large cult following, including PCAA fans, many of whom believe their teams have long since passed up a Pacific-10 living on past glories.
"We're defending the honor of the Pac-10," Hazzard said. "The last two years they've said they have the best conference. Showdown time."
Scholarly in appearance, low-key and folksy in style, Grant has his own cult following. He started the season with a .757 winning percentage, trailing only Jerry Tarkanian, Denny Crum and Dean Smith among Division I coaches.
Grant is frequently rumored to be headed for someone's big time, including UCLA last year. He says there was never anything to that one.
Recently, though, he did say he'd be willing to talk about the vacant Cal job, if Cal approached him.
"I'm one of those types, I'll talk to people," Grant drawled. "I'm this small-town guy. You want to visit and talk crops, I'll talk crops."
Fresno State was 23-8 but only 8-7 away from Selland. The Bulldogs were eliminated by Cal State Fullerton in the PCAA tournament. . . . UCLA is 18-12, 14-3 in Pauley. . . . Fresno is 1-3 against common opponents. The Bulldogs were dealt their lone home loss by Washington, which won by 12 points in Selland. They lost by 16 points to Oregon State and by three to Oregon in the Far West Classic and beat Santa Clara in three overtimes. The Bruins went 4-3 against the same four teams. . . . Walt Hazzard said that freshman forward Craig Jackson, who has a broken bone in his right hand, will probably be available.