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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

Bruins Realize First-Round Loss to Hurricanes Won't Blow Over

March 13, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — With the common sense that four years in crazy weather gives you, Kris Johnson took the Georgia Dome floor with a scowl.

"Everybody sprint down! Everybody sprint down!"

"Let's work, let's work."

"Ain't no tomorrow, ain't no tomorrow."

Through an hour's worth of sweat-spraying screams, Johnson was saying what nobody on this UCLA basketball team will say.

Tonight's first-round NCAA tournament game here is not fun, or reward, or entertainment, or experience.

It is mandatory.

A UCLA loss against struggling University of Miami will back the program and its coach into a foreboding corner last occupied by Jim Harrick.

It will be a "What's wrong with the coach?" loss.

A "What happened to our program?" loss.

An "Oh, no, not again!" loss.

Beaten in the second round? Fine. Play hard, keep it close. The resignation of Jelani McCoy had mandated that everyone understand.

But a failure to even reach the second round? There is trouble, more trouble here than probably with any other school not located in South Carolina and coached by Eddie Fogler.

A loss to Miami, and people bring up Princeton.

And Tulsa.

And Penn State.

Jim Harrick won 192 games at UCLA, including a national championship, but he will also be remembered for games with those three teams.

And you know why--they were all losses, all in the first round of the NCAA tournament when UCLA was a highly seeded team.

A loss to Miami, and those same people will start remembering the same things about Steve Lavin.

That may not be fair. None of this may be fair. But when you sign on with the Bruins, you surrender fair.

Around Westwood, losing in the first round became uncool shortly after John Wooden did it in three of his first five tournaments . . . before winning 10 of them.

A loss to Miami, and people start wondering, is there life after the departure of the three seniors starters?

Maybe guard Earl Watson gets mad and finally makes good on his threat to transfer closer to his Midwest home.

And takes with him high school star forward JaRon Rush, a friend who has orally committed to the Bruins.

Maybe other top recruits feel that Lavin has lost control and also turn away.

For a team and program on the precipice of losing so much stability, so much can happen.

Not that any of it will happen.

Not against a team that is also gasping, only doing it with less talent.

Miami really can't win this game. Can it?

After one resignation and one suspension, the Hurricanes are hurting, and they know it.

"Before the suspensions, we were on a roll," said Kevin Norris, senior guard, explaining how their 12-1 record became 18-9. "I can't say it didn't affect us because it did."

Miami can lose and, hey, any sort of dancing after 38 years of watching is good dancing.

"I'm happy to be here," junior forward Tim James said. "On behalf of my teammates, I'm sure they're happy to be here, too, so we're just looking forward to having a good time."

During a hustling, shouting, glare-filled practice Thursday, the Bruins were plenty of things.

Happy wasn't one of them.

"This is our last chance for, basically, redemption," Johnson said.

Afterward in the locker room, the atmosphere changed, as the younger players gathered around a TV camera and performed a rap song and then moved to the strategy board to play Pictionary.

J.R. Henderson looked at them and chuckled.

"I don't think any of them are thinking about the game tomorrow," he said. "I don't know whether that is good or bad."

Sometime before this evening, expect the seniors to remind them.

Expect at least one of them to mention Princeton.

"They have to know what it feels like, how bad it was," Johnson said.

Interestingly enough, probably nobody will mention Arkansas. Surely you remember Arkansas? That's the team that UCLA defeated for the 1995 national championship.

There is a reason more UCLA fans can play word association with Princeton than Arkansas, and that is why it probably won't come up in the locker room.

The Bruins are not thinking about a national championship just yet.

They are thinking about survival.

No, their first-round game is not yet about the chill-bumped, tear-wiping stuff of March Madness.

It is survival.

"I've heard people talking about playing Michigan in the second round and I've said, 'Chill with that,' " Johnson said. "Don't even start with that."

The good news for Bruin fans is, once they do survive, the program has thrived in these conditions.

Of the 24 times UCLA has won in the first round, 17 times it has advanced to at least the regional final.

Tonight could be the start of a run, maybe not as triumphant as 1995, but at least as sweet as in 1997.

Then again . . .

"It's an emotional roller coaster at UCLA," Johnson said, looking at fellow seniors Henderson and Toby Bailey. "It has been hard to jell, with everything that has been going on, playing under such scrutiny."

One more time. For the sake of their alma mater, they need to do it one more time.

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