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Surprise, Surprise

UCLA: Bruins Once Again Are Shipped Out of West Region, but No. 2 Seeding in Midwest Eases Their Disappointment

March 10, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The UCLA Bruins danced and pranced into the NCAA tournament pairings Sunday, seeded as the Midwest Regional's No. 2 team and plastered with knowing grins that only partially reflected this grueling journey from December desperation.

From Team Chaos to . . . darlings of March?

"In December, if you told me we'd be a 'two-seed,' I would've looked at you like you were crazy," said Kris Johnson, after UCLA was given a first-round date Thursday in the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., against Big South champion Charleston Southern.

"We were playing our worst basketball, but we've just turned it completely around. After going 3-3, everybody was talking that we were going to the NIT, that we weren't getting into the tournament. We've come from such a long way."

So what if, for the second year in a row, the Pacific 10 champions have to travel a long way to kick off what they presume will be a successful tournament run?

Fighting back after seeing your coach fired two weeks before the season, coming back after being dumped by Kansas at Pauley Pavilion or from a 48-point stomping at Stanford, and finishing the regular season with nine consecutive victories, and 18 out of the last 22, now that's a long trip.

"From what we've been through, I think it's probably only appropriate that we go on a plane, go through a couple time-zone changes," said UCLA Coach Steve Lavin, who earned a four-year contract along the way.

"Yeah, that's what it's been through the whole year. Might as well be the way it is in the tournament. It's just another adventure."

In a vast departure from their public disappointment last year after being moved to the Southeast Regional as the No. 4 team after winning the Pac-10 by three games--and drawing Princeton in a fateful first-round game--the Bruins, who were widely projected as either a No. 3 or 4 tournament team a week ago, were serene.

"I know last year we were fuming that we were sent to the Southeast, going to Indianapolis," Johnson said, intimating that the emotional reaction might have been a cause of the flat performance against Princeton. "Everybody was all mad, sulking, smacking our lips.

"This year was totally different. We were like, 'Yeah! a two seed!"

This year, the Bruins did what they thought they had to do: win the conference going away by winning their last nine games in a row, and they got what they thought they deserved.

"If you're a one-or two-seed, you've got to be very, very happy," Lavin said. "I think the committee recognized the fact that we're playing at a high level to finish the season, that we've won 18 of our last 22."

Though a short trip to Tucson for a West sub-regional would have been nice, UCLA scanned the brackets and saw Kentucky, Utah, Wake Forest and Georgetown in the West and No. 1 Minnesota, No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 4 Clemson and No. 7 Xavier--a potential UCLA second-round foe--in their own regional.

"I think we came out OK," J.R. Henderson said. "I really don't have a bad feeling about being shipped out of the West. I think the West is a harder bracket than we got anyway.

"They easily could've given us a lower seed, and I was expecting anything. We're happy to get what we got."

Said Charles O'Bannon: "We were extremely upset last year. We felt as if we were robbed, like they owed us something. This year, we just weren't as concerned about that. Wherever we went and whatever seed we got was OK, because we know this is up to us."

Way back, three years ago, the Bruins--then seeded fifth in the Midwest--were notably blase about first-round opponent Tulsa and were summarily dispatched from the tournament.

This year, if UCLA (21-7) wins its first two tournament games, it moves on to the Midwest Regional in San Antonio at the Alamodome.

"I see teams with our style of play," O'Bannon said. "If we were to get matched up with Cincy, that'd be an up-and-down game. That'd be some exciting basketball--nothing like last year's first game, that slow-down, lethargic basketball. This year, it could be a lot of fun."

Instead of a team as tricky as Princeton, this year's first-round match is against No. 15-seeded Charleston Southern, which was 14-12 in regular-season play before taking the conference tournament with three consecutive victories, finishing with an upset of top-seeded Liberty.

The Buccaneers, ranked 147th on the Ratings Percentage Index, do have a major victory on their resume. They beat South Carolina--the East Regional's No. 2 team--on the road on Dec. 28. The Gamecocks went on to beat Kentucky, twice.

"Them beating South Carolina shows that they're not like your normal first-round team," Johnson said of Charleston Southern. "Beating South Carolina at South Carolina, we saw that and we're like, 'Whoa, that ain't no joke.'

"This team has talent, obviously."

The Bruin coaching staff plans to show the players videotape today. Sunday, the coaches did not know much about them.

"What I know is two great guards, [Errol] McPherson and [Brett] Larrick," Lavin said. "I think they're very quick, but we don't know yet. Are they deliberate or full court? We'll find that out in the next day or so.

"All I know is our players are ready--and excited."

Said Cameron Dollar: "The sooner, the better."

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