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NCAA COLLEGE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Bruins Enjoying Life in the Fast Lane

Midwest Regional: UCLA revved up for high-octane Maryland but must avoid the urge to play with reckless abandon.

March 18, 2000|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINNEAPOLIS — That's either a perfect matchup or a big trap UCLA is stepping into today for the second round of the NCAA tournament, getting an opponent in the Metrodome that will play at Mach I rather than bearhug the game into a halfcourt pace, raising Bruin hopes and one question:

Think even their passes at beautiful women are off the backboard?

Being a Bruin means never having to say you're sorry, so Earl Watson didn't hear a word from Coach Steve Lavin about his errant toss off the glass Thursday that turned a fastbreak and potential 20-9 lead into a snapshot of why they really are capable of beating anyone, themselves included. Ball State turned that into a transition basket of its own and the spark to a 15-4 run that gave the underdog Cardinals a four-point lead at halftime.

Now, after surviving that for a 65-57 victory, come the Maryland Terrapins, young and just as glad to pull up to the red light and find someone revving the engine in a big way the next lane over. The Bruins, relieved to see one of their own kind, will oblige, creating all sorts of possibilities.

An eight-game winning streak and a trip to Auburn Hills, Mich., next week for the regional semifinals, for one thing. The only part better than being made the sixth-seeded team in the Midwest, higher than even they expected, was the draw itself, a first-round game against a Ball State team that couldn't come close to matching their size and now meeting with an opponent that's likewise gifted but won't try to grind out 40 minutes.

Big trouble, for another.

If the Terrapins don't contain the Bruins, who will? Themselves?

Since when?

There have been several moments of commendable poise in the last month, and Watson has played with a presence worthy of praise, major factors in the late-season success. But they also show what the Bruins are capable of but can't capture on a regular basis.

Play fast and smart, a goal that has proved attainable, and people keep talking about them with a nod to the awesome potential--"We're playing a team that's probably playing as well as anybody in the country," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said.

Play fast and reckless and people start talking about what could have been.

"When we play under control, we still have to play with a tempo," said Ryan Bailey, the backup point guard. "We're not one of those teams that can slow the ball down.

"Some times, you just get caught up in the game. I guess we feel like when we're really playing, we're throwing the balls all around. That's what we grew up doing. But we have to be able to step back and think that we're in the NCAA tournament.

"Everybody wants to have fun, especially in the NCAA tournament. It's all about fun, and it's fun to go out there and throw lobs. But we also want to win, and we know that's the important thing. We'd love to throw lobs and all that, but there's nothing as fun as getting that W."

The pyrotechnics will never be pushed underground on this team, the SportsCenter-ization having hit long before they arrived in Westwood and little being done to discourage it now. Such mistakes go largely uncorrected in practice. But the Bruins know, everyone knows, the difference between exciting and wild.

"This team likes to have fun with its personnel," said Watson, given the difficult task this season of switching from shooting guard to point guard. "Solid play is going to come. Stanford proved that."

The inner struggle has been to go fast and stay safe. Run the break, just maybe not like an obstacle course, off the glass, as if the degree of difficulty isn't high enough just because of the time of year. Always wear your seat belts.

"When we don't try to--what's the proper word?--overextend ourselves, we're a much better basketball team," said Jim Saia, the Bruin assistant in charge of the offense.

"But that's the way they played AAU ball and all that. Being at UCLA, they want to be Showtime. And sometimes, Showtime gets you in trouble. They know that. We have smart basketball players."

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