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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

The Streets of Philadelphia Turn Into L.A.'s Showcase

March 18, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The road to the Final Four just got hit with a SigAlert.

Steve Lavin honking. Henry Bibby swerving. Earl Watson pounding the steering wheel. Sam Clancy blasting the stereo.

A strange, chaotic, noisy, wonderful sight.

Our two backyard teams, traveling bumper to bumper at Sweet 16 mph, from the Santa Monica Freeway to Philadelphia.

For the first time in 23 years, two schools from the same city will play in the same NCAA regional finals bracket.

Do a smug check, Durham. Hold your horses, Lexington.

L.A.'s got next week.

At the First Union Center in Philadelphia on Thursday, UCLA will play Duke while USC plays Kentucky in the East Regional semifinals.

UCLA advanced Saturday by throwing an itchy blanket on Utah State in a 75-50 victory that featured 22 consecutive missed Aggie shots.

USC advanced with a 74-71 upset of Boston College that featured little-known Robert Hutchinson making free throws that will be remembered as if they were Marcus Allen runs.

While our schools will play separate opponents Thursday, in the back of everyone's mind will be, well, you know.

If they both win, they would advance to play each other Saturday for the right to go to the Final . . .

Can you imagine?

Nah. Never happen. Forget it.

UCLA is not beating No. 1-ranked Duke. The Bruins cannot shoot enough or pass enough or defend enough to beat a team that does all three things as well as they understand Ancient Religion and Modern Literature.

And USC against Kentucky? A school that has won eight tournament games against a school that has won seven tournament championships?

Can you imagine?

Well, sure.

Duke's Jason Williams will have his thick little arms full with Watson. Jason Kapono is quicker than Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Dan Gadzuric has suddenly remembered that he's 6 feet 11. Maybe Shane Battier will suddenly forget to show up.

Duke lives by the jumper. What if it starts missing?

"All I know is, Stanford beat Duke, and we beat Stanford," UCLA's Billy Knight said. "They're a great team, but we're not going to be scared of them."

As for USC, well, the Trojans could have beaten Stanford twice, and lost by one point to a Mississippi team that beat Kentucky.

Then there's Henry Bibby, who is as Philadelphia as those disgusting onions they spill on their steak. The man who looks as if he coaches while embedded with nails will be comfortable there. Maybe it will rub off.

Frankly, it's all too much to ponder.

One minute our teams are dodging bottles at the Sports Arena, and the next minute they are playing for the Final Four?

One minute, David Bluthenthal and Watson are rolling around the Pauley Pavilion floor like angry brothers, and the next minute they're doing it on national television?

Frankly, it doesn't matter.

The winner already is Los Angeles.

"This is huge," said Jeff Fellenzer, longtime Southland recruiting expert. "This shows again that the depth of players here and the quantity of players here is unrivaled anywhere. We could field several Sweet 16 teams with our players."

Considering Stanford advanced to the Sweet 16 Saturday with four starters from Southern California, we have at least fielded three.

The difference Saturday is that some of those local players have decided to stay at USC.

While UCLA was expected by many to make the Sweet 16, it is easy to be happier for the Trojans, who barely made the tournament.

"People expect that UCLA is going to make a run, but for USC to now do it as well?" Fellenzer said, repeating a question asked by many.

USC has advanced with locals like Compton's Jeff Trepagnier and Westchester's Brandon Granville and Bluthenthal.

UCLA features Artesia's Kapono, Westchester's Knight and Loyola's Ryan Bailey.

The players who aren't from here, they stay here in the summer for the best off-season hoops in the country. From the UCLA gym to Venice Beach, many NBA stars come to sun and shoot.

It's easy to handle a little guard from Boston College when you've guarded Magic Johnson. It's not so hard to run with a fat guy from Utah State when you've run with Kobe Bryant.

"If you ask me, that's the key," said Knight. "Not only do we all play each other in the summer, but we all end up playing in pickup games with all the NBA players. How can we be scared of anybody when we've played everybody?"

Such is the personality of this year's Bruins. They are not the stereotypical L.A. showmen.

In two tournament games, UCLA has won with defense, holding its opponents to less than 100 points combined.

Meanwhile, while USC loves to act like daredevils, it is also tough enough to survive those giant spills. The Trojans won Saturday with starters Granville and Sam Clancy on the bench while center Brian Scalabrine was dribbling the ball through a full-court press.

The last time something this parochial happened, Villanova and Penn played in the same East Regional semifinals in 1978.

Now it's happening again and what fun.

Somebody find Mo Layton and Stais Boseman. Somebody track down Greg Lee and George Zidek.

And would somebody please call Randy Newman.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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