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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT

The Mad March Begins

65 Teams 64 Games 75 Hours Of Tv Countless Cliches (cinderella, Big Dance...)

UCLA: Hofstra concentrating on Kapono and beating the press. Bruins will be trying to make a statement.

March 15, 2001|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Thank heaven for Jason Kapono.

That's what Hofstra forward Osei Millar has been saying. He got to impersonate Kapono in practice this week, launching shots that otherwise would have his coach swallowing his whistle.

"They basically had me running and shooting," said Millar, a redshirt transfer from Boston College. "Transition threes. One dribble to the left, pull up, jump shot. I basically had the green light all week."

In other words, a shooter's fantasy.

"As hard as we play defensively and offensively, it's good to get a break sometimes," he said. "You definitely get that playground feel."

Kapono--and the rest of the Bruins--say they intend to sharpen their defensive focus in today's first-round game. But what worries Hofstra is what Kapono can do with the ball in his hands.

"I think he's a throwback player," Hofstra Coach Jay Wright said. "I don't mean to exaggerate, but in that Larry Bird kind of way, he can do so many things to hurt you. He can catch and shoot, he can go get an offensive rebound, he can beat you off the dribble. He's not a guard, he's not a forward, he's a basketball player."

Kapono isn't the only concern. Hofstra has a daunting to-do list that includes containing center Dan Gadzuric--far more athletic than any of the Pride's big men--and finding a way to cope with UCLA's full-court press.

How strange, then, that Hofstra has emerged as a trendy pick to bump off the Bruins, becoming the fifth team to upset them in the opening round since 1990. Hey, the Pride is riding an 18-game winning streak and has a little NCAA tournament experience under its belt--albeit a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State in last year's first round.

"Last year, we kind of walked in like we were going to a party and we weren't sure we were invited," Wright said. "We were kind of looking around to see who's here, who do we know here. This year, we've come in like, hey, we belong here, we've been here before and this is what we're supposed to do at this time of year."

Hofstra is billed as a team that doesn't mind an up-tempo game. But there's a distinct difference between transition games in the America East and Pacific 10 conferences. The Bruins are athletic enough to run the Pride off the floor.

"I have a lot of confidence in myself and my teammates that we'll make good decisions against their press," said Hofstra point guard Jason Hernandez, who had a combined 17 assists and one turnover in the past three games.

In an attempt to simulate UCLA's press, Hofstra ran five-on-six drills in practice. There were hands all over the place, and lots of squeaking shoes, but the exercise wasn't ideal.

"The six guys were like 5-11, 5-10," Wright joked. "I said that to them today. 'Guys, we can't really simulate what this is really going to be.' When their hands are reaching up to the chests of our starters. I mean, our heads are going to be coming up to Gadzuric's chest."

Truth be told, Hofstra isn't an unusually small team. The Pride's starting five stand 6-0, 6-3, 6-5, 6-7 and 6-9. Regardless, Wright did a masterful job at positioning his team as a rough-around-the-edges Cinderella in waiting.

The Bruins, meanwhile, are itching to prove they are the team that beat Arizona at home and Stanford on the road, not the team that finished the regular season with a humiliating loss at Washington. So they are all about defense this week. It's what the players are talking about. It's what the coaches have emphasized during practice.

"I'm very confident about our defense, especially in the halfcourt," point guard Earl Watson said. "The last couple of days we've emphasized that. Everyone's met the challenge, and we know defense wins championships. We're not just trying to come here and play a couple of games. We want to win the whole thing. That's our whole mind-set."

If the Bruins make it through the first two rounds and reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in Coach Steve Lavin's five seasons, there are some potential matchups that would make for must-see TV. Duke, perhaps. Or maybe Georgia, whose coach, Jim Harrick, described his relationship with Lavin, his UCLA successor, as "no relationship."

But the Bruins say their focus is on the here, now and Hofstra.

At least one guy is waltzing around without a care. That's Millar, the Hofstra redshirt pretending to be Kapono.

"I've pretty much been shooting from 25 feet and out, just let it fly," he said. "I do pretty well from there. I hit two real deep ones out of three today. One was glass, though. I didn't call it."

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