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Bruins riding in coach class

Beginning with Weber State, there is a strong sense of coincidence in possible matchups.

March 12, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

The UCLA Bruins look forward to redemption, are stoic in their refusal to rehash the two-game losing streak they possess and are even a little amused at the sense of humor the NCAA tournament seemed to show Sunday when the 2007 tournament draw was revealed.

The Bruins (26-5) received a No. 2 seeding in the West Regional and will play No. 15 Weber State (20-11) in Sacramento about 4:15 p.m. Thursday. It was at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, where UCLA Coach Ben Howland played his college basketball and where he met his wife, Kim, who was a cheerleader. Howland has a nephew now who attends Weber State.

In the second round might be 10th-seeded Gonzaga, where Howland began his coaching career as a graduate assistant. In the round of 16? Perhaps third-seeded Pittsburgh, where Howland spent four years as head coach and where his handpicked protege, Jamie Dixon, is now the coach.

"CBS is paying a lot of money to telecast the NCAA tournament," Howland said Sunday afternoon after the brackets were released. "So of course if there's a matchup that's going to be more commanding of viewership, that's what's going to happen."

Said junior guard Arron Afflalo: "I don't know if it's coincidence, but, yeah, it's kind of funny, the possible matchups. The thing is, we've already learned. We can't look ahead."

Kansas, fresh off beating Texas to win the Big 12 Conference tournament, earned the No. 1 seeding in the San Jose bracket, ahead of UCLA, but the Bruins did get their location wish. All their games before the Final Four, should they get that far, will be in California.

"I'd rather have the No. 2 seed and stay in California," Afflalo said. "That's the best thing."

When UCLA went to the national championship game last year, they also went as a No. 2 and played their first- and second-round games in California.

But last year the Bruins went into the NCAA tournament on a seven-game winning streak after winning both the Pacific 10 Conference regular-season title and conference tournament.

Now they are trying to relocate the precision offense and stifling defense that made them seem invulnerable 10 days ago after clinching a second straight regular-season title at Washington State.

"We, as a team, had to look within ourselves after the Cal loss," Afflalo said, referring to UCLA's overtime defeat in its first game in the conference tournament. "We had to get back to practice Saturday and get back to those fundamentals. What we know is that every person on this team has to play his best for us to win. Because otherwise we can lose to anybody."

That was the mantra of the day.

The Bruins' body of work this season always showed that while they were proud of never being blown out of a game (their worst loss was 61-51 to Washington in the regular-season finale) they also seldom had anyone badly beaten until midway through the second half.

"We had a good practice Saturday," Howland said. "Yes, there's concern coming off the loss to Cal.... Saturday we got back to some real basics, things we haven't done since Oct. 15. We improved as a team Saturday. I had a good feeling coming out of practice."

Point guard Darren Collison, seven for 30 from the field over the last two games, was defiantly unconcerned about shooting.

"I'm worried about defense," Collison said. "That's where it starts. We're not an offensive team. It all starts with defense."

While it seemed more eye-opening that Afflalo had only three points in the Cal loss, what was more revealing, the junior said, was how the Bears shot 54.2% from the field while building a 37-25 halftime lead.

"All season we took pride in our defense," he said. "As a team we have to realize that can't falter."

Collison said that he had no trouble watching film of UCLA's two straight losses. "Why not watch?" he said. "We're trying to do something really special here, and you have to go through tough times to do that."

After the smiles and winks about the "Ben Howland Regional," as San Jose is already being nicknamed, UCLA players returned to their primary message. "Everything isn't going to be peaches and cream as you go through a season," Collison said. "But tournament time is all serious. All your hard work comes out now. This is all about business. Starting now."

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