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Bruins Find a Method to the Madness

NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT | Bill Plaschke

March 17, 2006|Bill Plaschke | Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

SAN DIEGO — They won by 34 points, UCLA's biggest victory margin in the NCAA tournament in a half-dozen years.

Ben Howland's players were asked if they were unprepared.

"That's a poor choice of words," he said, bristling. "We were very prepared."

After the first 14 minutes, UCLA went on a 52-12 run that was surly, suffocating and silenced even the bellowing Vince Gill.

Howland was asked, what happened those first 14 minutes?

"Those weren't jitters," he said sharply. "That was \o7adrenaline\f7."

UCLA won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in four years, Howland got his first NCAA tourney victory as their coach, the Bruins were dominant Thursday in a 78-44 win over tiny Belmont University.

Yet all anybody could talk about was Alabama.

That would be Saturday's juicy second-round game against Mark Gottfried, a former UCLA assistant coach who was on the bench for their 1995 championship and could have been the Bruin head coach if he had just stuck around and ...

"I understand," said Howland.

He does now.

While teams in the rest of the tournament wax about the cliches of Cinderella and slippers, UCLA deals in the realities of dungeons and dragons, and so it is happening again.

Eleven national championships means forever having to say you're sorry, because it's never enough, not this time of year, especially not with a team that has won more games than any Bruin team since that last national title.

They had just finished what would be the most convincing victory in the tournament's first day. They held their opponent to exactly fewer points in an entire game as some tourney teams scored in one half.

Yet caught between dungeons of their past failures and the dragons of future expectations, the UCLA kids reacted in shrugs, sighs and shaking heads.

"There was no dunking the coach with water or anything of that nature," said Arron Afflalo. "We're on a mission now to win six games.... We won't really celebrate for another three weeks."

This was not the time for Gatorade showers, certainly, but what would have been wrong with, say, a trash can filled with confetti?

To all of those who scoffed at this victory, I have two words.

Detroit Mercy.

And, well, OK, two more words.

Back door.

Those who have watched UCLA suffer three giant first-round upsets in the last dozen years will not scoff at Thursday's victory, even if it did include an 18-12 Belmont lead with 6:44 remaining in the first half at Cox Arena.

"We haven't had a lot of tournament experience, we came out a little tentative," said freshman Darren Collison.

Collison's energy got them going, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's coolness got them close, then, as always, the defense set them free.

They had only two fewer steals and blocked shots (15) than Belmont had baskets (17).

They beat Belmont by 34 points despite taking three \o7fewer\f7 shots.

They won in their biggest rout of the year even though their two leading scorers, Afflalo and Jordan Farmar, combined for just 15 points.

And yet someone asked Howland whether he was happy?

"I'm really happy," he said with a hint of exasperation.

As long as this team has a face only a Howland could love, he will have to be its best defender.

While recent UCLA squads floated through the tournament with mirrors, this one does it with mettle. It's not as pretty, and it's not fun, and it's never as convincing.

The last time UCLA won an NCAA tournament game in a similar rout, that 1999-2000 team started four future NBA players -- Earl Watson, Jason Kapono, Jerome Moiso and Dan Gadzuric.

Remember when they beat Maryland by 35? Remember all the alley-oops and fastbreaks?

Now, quick, can you remember even one play from Thursday?

Even in blowing Belmont away, the Bruins didn't blow Belmont away, instead huffing here, and puffing there, and eventually looking down to discover their opponent had disappeared completely.

This is not just how they won this game, it's how they win every game.

Even with all their young stars, right now, the only person on this team who seems a safe bet for an NBA starting job is their coach.

"We've actually seen that happen a lot this year," said Afflalo of their methodical maulings. "We don't really focus on the score too much.... We're mostly concerned with stepping up our defensive pressure and letting things take care of themselves."

It's not sexy, it's not Hollywood, but can't it be enough?

Incidentally, a week after its win against Maryland, that 1999-2000 team was routed out of the Sweet 16 by Iowa State.

No matter what happens Saturday, here's guessing it won't happen like that.

After the Bruins outscored Belmont, 23-5, to end the first half Thursday, country star and Belmont booster Gill sat dazed in his front-row seat, shaking his head.

"Man," he said of UCLA, "they're good."

That tune may not be a foot-tapper, but the lyrics are true.

\o7

\f7

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