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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT : THE COWBOYS' BIG GUN : LECKNER IS RIDIN' TALL : Wyoming's 6-11 Center Could Cause UCLA and Haley a Heap of Trouble

March 14, 1987|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — When UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard talks about Wyoming's basketball team, he talks about one Cowboy in particular.

"The big boy is big," Hazzard said.

Just how big is big? Wyoming center Eric Leckner is 6 feet 11 inches and weighs 265 pounds, which means this Cowboy isn't just a tall drink of water. He's more like an entire water tank.

It is left to UCLA center Jack Haley, who is giving up a mere 45 pounds, to do something about Leckner. Here is Haley's strategy:

"Basically, I hope to make him force his shot and then I hope Charles Rochelin goes up and grabs that puppy," Haley said.

There you have it. Whether that will work or not is anybody's guess, but when the Bruins and the Cowboys meet today in a second-round game of the West Regional, it's going to be the last roundup for somebody.

The UCLA-Wyoming matchup looks like one that may need some interpretation. Puppy, in this case, is a rebound, and this is the pet project for both Haley and Leckner. Of course, there's also the matchup of mouths belonging to UCLA's Reggie Miller and Wyoming's Fennis Dembo. You just know that whatever they say is going to need some clarification.

As Wyoming guard Sean Dent said about Dembo: "If he can play as good as he talks, everything will be all right."

So, Fennis, my man, ever use Reggie's favorite rejoinder, the descriptive "Face, baby," to someone on the court?

"Sure, everybody has," Dembo said.

And what will you do if Reggie says it to you?

"Probably laugh, take it right back to him and dunk on him," he said.

Miller didn't sound too worked up about his date with Dembo, perhaps wishing to save his vocal cords for game time.

"It's just another tournament," Reggie said. "It's just another game."

Just another tournament? But since UCLA is in the NCAA playoffs for the first time in four years, that doesn't really seem enough to classify this appearance as a ho-hummer. Maybe Miller was thinking about the NIT, which really is just another tournament.

The Bruins would be better off trying to figure out a way to do something about Leckner, who had 22 points in Thursday night's 64-60 upset of Virginia. He is large, he is strong and he is just the kind of player UCLA has had lots of trouble with this season.

The closest thing the Bruins have seen to Leckner is Chris Welp, but the Washington center isn't as good as Leckner. In the entire country, only four other players shot better than Leckner's 64.3%. He also averaged 18.5 points and 7 rebounds a game and was the Most Valuable Player in the Western Athletic Conference tournament, won by the Cowboys.

Leckner's appearance on the court can be rather unsettling. At his size, he is probably too big to be a man and too small to be a horse, but he used to be even bigger. When Leckner reported to practice last fall, he weighed 285 pounds.

"All I did was lay around the apartment all summer and eat," he said. "I lived alone in an apartment in Laramie, so I didn't eat a whole lot of good, wholesome food."

On the court, Leckner's opponents do not often regard him as a wholesome kind of guy. Power is his game. It's also his attitude.

"I'm going out there to win," he said. "I'm not going out there to make friends. If I have to go out there and hit a board over somebody, I'll do it."

At one time, when he was growing up in Manhattan Beach, Leckner often hit the board, a surfboard. Eventually, though, he had to put it away. "Once I grew out of my wetsuit, I canned that sport," he said.

Leckner is the latest in a line of projects for Coach Jim Brandenburg, known as a big man's coach after developing Chris Engler and Bill Garnett. When he was at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Leckner didn't even start on the junior varsity as a junior, but that was before he learned how to play the pivot.

Leckner is an offensive player. He can shoot hooks and turnaround jumpers, facing the basket or facing away.

"I hope I get a lot of help," Haley said.

"Basically, he's walked down to the low post and set up practically anywhere he wanted to," Haley said. "He won't get that good position on me. I'll pick him up at half-court if I have to."

He may have to. Besides wanting double-team defensive help from the rest of the Bruins, Haley wants to push Leckner a step or two farther out than he usually sets up. Leckner said there is a contrast between himself and Haley.

"Jack Haley is a big boy himself," Leckner said. "He's big, strong and active, compared to me."

Haley, from Seal Beach, is an active surfer, but he's never ridden a swell as big as Leckner, who would have gone to UCLA if somebody had wanted him.

"I never heard from UCLA," said Leckner, eventually choosing Wyoming over Boise State and UC Irvine.

"Hey, everybody tries to move me out of my position," Leckner said. "I'll shoot the turnaround. One thing's for sure, against UCLA I don't think I'll be in one spot for very long."

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