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Bracket Bluster Is Not Allowed

UCLA is 18-9 and looks good for an NCAA berth, but you won't hear players saying that.

March 07, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

As much as anyone can tell, since the practices are closed to public and media viewing, UCLA basketball players are good listeners.

Coach Ben Howland believes that playing good, smart, man-to-man defense is more important that making jump shots or running the fastbreak, because when the shots don't fall or the fastbreak hits a wall, the defense can still change losses to wins.

And now the players do it.

When Howland has sent messages to his players through his public chats -- Michael Fey needs to be more assertive, Jordan Farmar needs to value the possession more than the flashy pass or slithery move, Dijon Thompson needs to go hard after every rebound -- the messages have been received and acted upon.

So when the NCAA bracket chatting began hitting the Westwood campus in various waves -- starting with a well-played trip in Arizona; slowing with a badly played homestand against Stanford and Cal; overwhelming everybody after a big win at Notre Dame and especially now that the Bruins have ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak -- Howland gave his players another message.

Just don't answer.

As fourth-seeded UCLA (18-9) prepares to play fifth-seeded Oregon State (16-13) Thursday afternoon at Staples Center in the quarterfinals of the Pacific 10 Conference tournament, you can't coax a Bruin into saying his team is certain to receive an invite to the 65-team NCAA tournament field that will be announced Sunday.

Not the freshman who was certain 18 wins would be good enough two weeks ago. "I'd say 18 is not a 100% guarantee, so 19 it is now," Afflalo said Saturday night, after UCLA had eliminated Oregon from conference tournament contention with its 73-61 victory. "What I can say is a Pac-10 championship guarantees it. That's what I can say, or what I'm allowed to say."

Not the senior who had offered 18 as a magic number about a month ago, when 18 seemed farfetched for a young team struggling to find consistency. "I don't know if we're in," Thompson said. "We hope so. But we won't be able to find out or to really ice it unless we take care of business in the Pac-10 tournament."

And certainly not Brian Morrison, another senior who can often be counted on to provide an honest assessment of the state of the Bruins. "You know I can't answer that question," Morrison said. "So why do you keep asking? When we win the Pac-10 tournament, then I can give you an answer."

So the Bruins talked instead about Oregon State. The two teams split their regular-season meetings, with UCLA losing, 85-80, in Corvallis and winning last Thursday at Pauley Pavilion, 69-61.

"We just beat them, so, go beat them again," Afflalo said. "We're on our first win streak against some top teams. We're playing good basketball right now, and we deserve a shot at the NCAAs for sure. All you can do now, though, is leave no doubt."

Leave it to a freshman to get off the script. But just for a minute.

*

Cedric Bozeman, who had been a freshman with Thompson, said it was bittersweet watching Thompson be honored Saturday on Senior Night. Bozeman, who suffered a knee injury in preseason practice, which kept him on the bench all year, said his knee is at about 65% after reconstructive surgery. He also refuted a rumor that he might just graduate this spring and not use his final year of collegiate eligibility. "Why would I do that?" Bozeman said. "I'm excited to play for this team next year. I'll be playing this summer for sure. Gotta work on my jump shot."

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