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COLLEGE BASKETBALL NCAA TOURNAMENT

Mood Is First Dance Won't Be Last

UCLA: Second-seeded Bruins upbeat for opening game against unheralded Charleston Southern.

March 13, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Welcome to the hump game.

For whatever reasons, and with lasting recriminations, in the last three seasons, UCLA has either flopped in the first round of the NCAA tournament or won the whole darn thing.

Of course, the No. 2-seeded Bruins don't assume that a Final Four berth is guaranteed if they beat unheralded and virtually unknown Charleston Southern tonight at the Palace of Auburn Hills in a first-round Midwest Regional game.

No. 2s are supposed to win these games; that's why they're given the seeding.

Since the tournament field widened to 64 teams in 1985, only twice--when No. 15 Richmond toppled Syracuse in the 1991 East Regional and when another No. 15, Santa Clara, defeated No. 2 Arizona in the 1993 West Regional--has a No. 2 lost in the first round. (This is the Bruins' first No. 2 seeding since the expansion.)

But, given UCLA's 1994 Tulsa and 1996 Princeton memories, senior Charles O'Bannon, 1-2 in his career in first-rounders, conceded the initial game is something he'll be glad to be past.

"I guess it's a mental hurdle, just to get out of the first round," O'Bannon said after UCLA's one-hour workout at the Palace on Wednesday evening. "But I'm not looking at it that way. We're working to get back into the Final Four.

"It's good to know that all the Princeton questions will be gone after [tonight]. It'll be old news."

Just to do a little more historical analysis, since 1989, UCLA is 5-3 in first-round games--and 8-4 after the first round, against presumably tougher opposition.

In 1995, No. 1-seeded UCLA blew out Florida International, and, by the way, won the national title five games later. In 1994, the fifth-seeded Bruins got toasted by Tulsa.

"You think about it when you listen to all that's said about this team in the past," forward J.R. Henderson said. "But if we concentrate on thinking about the future, we can forget about the past. We've tried to forget Tulsa and Princeton--they're long gone."

Wednesday, at the workout and in the lively locker room afterward, the players were casual and confident--and hungry to start the tournament journey.

In direct contrast to last season's uncertain mood heading into the Princeton game, this time, buoyed by their recovery from the firing of Jim Harrick and the installation of Steve Lavin, by their nine-game winning streak to close the regular season and by a relatively undramatic regional draw, the Bruins addressed the big picture.

"We're a lot more focused this year," guard Toby Bailey said. "We really do think we can win it all. Last year, I don't think in our hearts we thought we could. This year, we know we have a chance at winning a national championship."

Said Henderson: "It's very realistic. We know it's there for us if we want it. All we have to do is play our heart out."

This, of course, is almost exactly the same team in terms of personnel as the one that lost to Princeton, 43-41, in Indianapolis last March, looking panicky and too frozen to execute in the last minutes.

Though Big South champion Charleston Southern does not pose the same mental challenges as Princeton, the Bruins vociferously argued that the 1997 UCLA team is far better prepared for tournament play.

"Oh, yeah, we're better than that team, way better," Bailey said. "Charles is a better leader, and he's playing a lot more focused this year. Jelani [McCoy]'s a lot more mature, J.R.'s playing a lot tougher and a lot harder. Kris [Johnson] is just a lot more poised and [after hand injuries in 1996, Cameron] Dollar's back healthy. My turnovers are cut down."

The Buccaneers (17-12), meanwhile, talked about UCLA's tradition, athletic advantage inside (a frontline that goes 6 feet 5, 6-9 and 6-9 1/2 against Charleston Southern's slightly less jumpy line of 6-6, 6-6 and 6-8), and pressure to move into the deeper rounds.

For a team that lost to Toledo, Yale, North Carolina Asheville and at home to Radford and Liberty this season--but also defeated South Carolina at South Carolina--tonight is a chance to have some fun, and maybe pull off a miracle.

"When we get in the tournament, it's a great reward," Charleston Southern Coach Tom Conrad said. "For them, it's just a part of the season that's expected.

"When they enter the NCAA tournament, they're expected to win the whole thing. That's something that builds up every year for them."

How will the Buccaneers go after UCLA?

"Sneak attack," Conrad said. "The game starts at 10? We'll get out there at 9:50, and if we score before they get out there, we'll be all right."

Said Buccaneer senior guard Brett Larrick: "I think what happened last year to them might be a negative for us. You know none of those guys have forgotten Princeton last year."

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How Pac-10 Has Fared

Year-by-year records of Pacific 10 Conference in the NCAA Tournament:

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