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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | MIKE DOWNEY

It All Worked Out Well for the Pac-10

March 10, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

Everything worked out beautifully for USC and UCLA both. The NCAA's tournament assignments Sunday couldn't have been much better if the Trojan and Bruin players had hand-picked them themselves.

Worrying unnecessarily about being cold-shouldered from the tournament, USC drew a friendly bracket in the Southeast Regional that could carry the Trojans as far as a Sweet 16 date with Duke.

UCLA, meanwhile, dodged a regional where Kentucky, Utah and Wake Forest will thrash it out. A little extra airplane travel is definitely worth it, because this year's Midwest Regional looks a whole lot more winnable than the West.

It was good news all around for these two basketball programs, run by coaches who never won a game until this season.

Henry Bibby, 0-9 at USC in last season's ugly finish, has gotten the school to the NCAA party in his first full season. Championship basketball was second nature to Bibby in his UCLA playing days, but USC hasn't been to a Final Four since 1954.

The most thankful Trojan?

It has to be Rodrick Rhodes, who by transferring from Kentucky cost himself a 1996 NCAA championship ring.

Strange game, college basketball. One minute, USC is in jeopardy of being left out of the tournament. Next minute, a TV screen proclaims the Trojans as the 11th-seeded team of a 16-team regional.

To those who thought USC was out of luck, freshman Danny Walker couldn't resist saying Sunday, "It's a smack in their face."

As for UCLA, Steve Lavin laughs last in the faces of those--present company included--who considered him under-qualified to coach college basketball's greatest program.

Lavin has become the Whiz Kid of Westwood.

Not even one of the two top assistants on UCLA's 1995 championship team, Lavin has been on a roll ever since the school made his promotion permanent. Cameron Dollar's wild dash to the hoop Saturday at Washington State kept this team at a fever pitch, going into the NCAAs.

"We're definitely peaking at the right time," Dollar said.

The opponent UCLA drew is Charleston Southern, one of two Charleston, S.C., schools that made the tournament. (Note: the University of Charleston that is former UCLA coach Jim Harrick's alma mater is in West Virginia.)

A number of groans must have greeted the announcement that UCLA was once again being left out of the West Regional, which is the same disrespect the Pac-10 champs received a year ago. Fact is, this was a great break in the Bruins' favor.

Kentucky, Utah and Wake Forest are three teams with championship aspirations, but only one--at most--will survive this regional. That means among Ron Mercer, Keith Van Horn and Tim Duncan--three of America's top NBA prospects--no more than one will appear at the Final Four.

UCLA should be relieved to be in a regional where Minnesota, Cincinnati and Clemson appear to be the next-best teams.

There are six schools from California among the tournament's 64--four from the same conference, plus Pacific and St. Mary's.

Cal State Northridge would have made it seven, had it held on Saturday to a one-point lead over Montana in the final minute.

Northridge would have ended up playing the 1995 and 1996 national champions--UCLA and Kentucky--in the same season. Welcome to the big-time, Matadors.

UCLA's schedule looked pretty soft, for a while.

Not so much now. Tulsa is fifth-seeded in No. 2 UCLA's regional--a rematch is not out of the question--while Louisville and Illinois are the sixth-seeded teams of the East and Southeast, so these UCLA losses seem less unacceptable now. (Stanford--which beat UCLA by 48--is sixth-seeded also, in the West.)

UCLA has won 11 national championships.

USC has been to a Final Four only twice.

Just for the record: If both win their regionals, the Bruins and Trojans would not meet in the Saturday semifinals. They wouldn't meet until the Monday championship game, March 31 in Indianapolis.

It's a sweet image, Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski, sitting in the stands, watching Henry Bibby vs. Steve Lavin.

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