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Crash Course for Bruins, Maui Style

College basketball: UCLA opens tournament against Houston, with No. 7 Kansas and No. 1 Duke possibly in the wings.

November 19, 2001|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAHAINA, Hawaii — Beginnings and endings stick in your memory. Losses in the first and last games of a season stick in your craw.

UCLA opened last season with a one-point loss to Kansas and finished it with a 13-point loss to Duke in a Sweet 16 game.

Now comes a chance for payback, a fresh start in a sweltering gymnasium on a balmy island.

"It's an appealing thought," senior guard Billy Knight said. "If we play well we have a chance to face two teams that beat us last season."

No. 1 Duke, No. 5 UCLA and No. 7 Kansas are the marquee teams at the three-day Maui Invitational. Forget the waves, swell basketball is in store. A first-round UCLA victory over Houston today in the tiny Lahaina Civic Center should set up a date Tuesday with Kansas, which opens against Ball State. Next, presumably, would be Duke, the defending national champion.

The Bruins have an opportunity to give immediate credence to the prevailing opinion that this is Coach Steve Lavin's best team in his six years.

Not that a loss would spoil the island getaway. Duke and Kansas are attractive targets, but this is merely a preseason tournament in a locale where distractions run from surf boards to hula skirts.

"We are going to play a lot of basketball in a short period of time and come back with a better idea of our strengths and weaknesses and what we need to improve," Lavin said. "This is a crash course, three games in three days against different styles of play."

First up is Houston, which was 9-20 in Coach Ray McCallum's first season and returns four starters.

McCallum had a solid .624 winning percentage during a seven-year run at Ball State, culminating in his second NCAA tournament appearance in 2000.

As it happened, the Cardinals' first-round draw was UCLA, which won, 65-57, at Minneapolis.

"We are familiar with Houston's style of play because we played against the coach when he was at Ball State," Lavin said. "They have experience and do a good job of mixing defenses."

Houston is strongest at forward with 6-foot-8 returners George Williams and Patrick Okafor, both rugged on the boards. Williams averaged 13.5 points and Okafor averaged 8.6 rebounds.

Guards Marcus Oliver and Dominic Smith also return, although neither is much of a scorer. In his debut, freshman Bruin point guard Cedric Bozeman will match up against Smith, an exceptional free-throw shooter who averaged 12.6 points and 3.8 assists.

Kansas also returns its forwards and guards, but the quality is considerably better than Houston. Drew Gooden and Nick Collison were All-Big 12 Conference forwards and Kirk Hinrich is an all-conference point guard.

The heady Hinrich has started 46 games in a row and will give Bozeman--who is recovering from a bruised tailbone--his first true test if the teams meet. And it wouldn't get easier against Duke and All-American guard Jason Williams.

"That's what I'm here for, to play those guys," Bozeman said. "They may get the upper hand at times, but I'll remember the lessons and get better."

Bozeman is the only UCLA starter who doesn't remember last season's open and shut cases.

In the Bruins' opener, Kansas won, 99-98, in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. The Jayhawks took a 16-2 lead, UCLA pulled within 93-92 with 51 seconds to play but missed three of four free throws while Kansas made six.

In the Bruins' finale, Duke prevailed, 76-63, in the East Regional semifinal. UCLA also fell behind early in that one before closing to within 40-37. Then Williams scored 19 consecutive points and it was over.

Less is on the line this time should paths cross. UCLA plays host to Kansas on Jan. 12 at Pauley Pavilion. And who knows, perhaps the Bruins are destined to face Duke again in the NCAA tournament.

"This season could hold all sorts of interesting matchups," said Rico Hines, a fifth-year senior guard. "An early tournament is a testing point to see where we stand. We've never won a preseason tournament since I've been here.

"They say Duke is the best in college basketball, and of course we want to play the best team. But our first concern is Houston."

TONIGHT

vs. Houston, 8:30 PST

ESPN2

Site--Lahaina Civic Center.

Radio--KXTA (1150).

Records (2000-01)--UCLA 23-9, Houston 9-20.

Update--UCLA is 2-3 in openers under Lavin. Houston lacks a big man in the middle, which could enable 6-11 Bruin center Dan Gadzuric to dominate.

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