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Bruins May Not Be No. 1 Item on Their Mind

March 13, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Nice of Arizona to arrive in Los Angeles in time for dinner Wednesday. Fly in, chow down and get some sleep before today's yawner against UCLA.

Great gig if you can get it.

The Wildcats were no-shows at Staples Center on Wednesday, skipping a scheduled interview session and a one-hour practice. They arrived just in time for a banquet for all eight participants.

Clearly this is a team with its priorities straight. The late arrival enabled the players to attend one more day of class, thereby getting a jump on their Pacific 10 Conference brethren in avoiding thorny eligibility issues.

The Wildcats (25-2) are ranked No. 1 in the nation, seeded No. 1 in the conference tournament and, presumably, sit in the front row during class.

Pac-10 officials might have privately seethed, but No. 8-seeded UCLA (9-18) seemed unconcerned, sailing through practice and an interview session. The Bruins weren't thinking about Arizona because doing so only depresses them -- their two regular-season losses to the Wildcats were by a combined 71 points.

"We aren't worrying about those dudes," UCLA forward Andre Patterson said. "We have to take care of our own game."

Which will take some doing. This is the worst UCLA season since 1941-42, and although the Bruins have won three of four, the victories came against lower-echelon Oregon State, Washington State and Washington.

Coach Steve Lavin anticipates he will be fired after UCLA is eliminated, a point he reiterated Wednesday when asked what he would do if Athletic Director Dan Guerrero opted to retain him.

"We'd have a couple of margaritas together," he said, smiling. "I'd treat."

Extending his UCLA tenure beyond today is unlikely. The earlier meetings against Arizona were two of the lowest points in this dismal season.

The first was the worst loss ever at Pauley Pavilion, 87-52. UCLA scored 18 points in the first half and Lavin benched the starters with 13 minutes to play.

The second was a 106-70 blowout at McKale Center. In the second half, Arizona scored the first 16 points and outscored foul-plagued UCLA, 61-36.

"All our big guys were in foul trouble early," Bruin center Ryan Hollins said. "We were tentative in the second half and they went on a run."

Arizona has the ability to transform reasonably close games into blowouts in an eye blink. Senior forwards Luke Walton and Rick Anderson increase the tempo with crisp outlet passes, guards Jason Gardner and Salim Stoudamire bury three-point shots and sophomore center Channing Frye runs the break as well as smaller players.

The Wildcats have won 10 in a row, are among the nation's leaders at 85.1 points a game and offer no indication they are ripe for an upset.

Unless the fact that they don't want to be here affects their play.

"I remember Al McGuire saying, 'If I was in a conference tournament, I'd make sure we lost the first game and got home and rested,' " Coach Lute Olson said earlier this week. "Obviously, that's not something you're going to do, and I don't think Al would have done that."

This is as close as Olson gets to belligerence. His opposition to the conference tournament remains as steadfast as ever.

"I still dislike it," he said. "We'll be there because it's the vote of the conference and we'll try to win it as we did last year. I personally think 18 [Pac-10] games is enough. We've played everybody home and away."

Stanford pulled the same stunt last season, not arriving until the night before the first-round game. The Cardinal was blown out by USC, 103-78, and, sure enough, those smart Stanford kids were at Staples Center bright and early Wednesday.

Could the same fate befall Arizona? It matters a lot more to UCLA than to the Wildcats, who are expected to gain the No. 1 seeding in the West Region of the NCAA tournament even with a loss today.

"It's a chance to shock the world," Bruin forward Jason Kapono said. "Everyone has counted us out and we haven't given them much reason not to. We wouldn't mind being the team criticized for 28 games and hailed [this weekend]."

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