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UCLA gets its marching orders to face Virginia Commonwealth

Bruins get sixth seeding in East Regional, and will face No. 11 Rams in Philadelphia. Too many losses result in the tough road ahead after recent stays in the West for NCAA tournament.

March 16, 2009|David Wharton

The way Josh Shipp sees it, he and his UCLA teammates pretty much got what they deserved after a few too many losses this season.

"We didn't take care of business," Shipp said. "So we expected to get sent off."

Sent off down a rocky NCAA tournament road, all the way to Philadelphia, where the sixth-seeded Bruins will face a potentially dangerous 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the East Regional on Thursday night.

The next round -- if they reach there -- could bring a showdown with the home team, third-seeded Villanova, which played a handful of games at Wachovia Center this winter.

It's not exactly a road map for success, not for a team accustomed to a No. 1 or 2 seeding and a clear path to the last three Final Fours.

"We haven't been the underdog in the last few years," Coach Ben Howland said. "We know we're going to have to play very well to get out of Philadelphia and move on to the next set of rounds."

On Sunday afternoon, the Bruins gathered in a conference room at UCLA's athletic department, watching the tournament pairings announced on a big screen. Some of the players were surprised that Friday's loss to USC in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament caused them to slip so far.

"We got a tough draw," forward James Keefe said.

They had been hoping for something around a four or five seeding, maybe a ticket to Portland, Ore., or Boise, Idaho, for the first two rounds.

Howland knew better.

Shortly before the 3 p.m. announcement, he got a call from a former player -- someone who now works at CBS -- tipping him off about the Bruins' fate.

The coach went directly to Doug Erickson, his director of basketball administration who handles video, and learned that UCLA had 16 hours of film on VCU from this season. Howland then walked downstairs to join his team, watching the telecast in which CBS analyst Seth Davis predicted the Rams will upset UCLA.

"Yeah," Howland said, "good for Seth."

His players heard Davis' comment but said they didn't care. They also didn't know much about their opponent -- some were not entirely sure what VCU stood for -- but this is a game that could be treacherous.

Much like UCLA, the 11th-seeded Rams pride themselves on shutting down opponents. Under Coach Anthony Grant, they play a "94 feet both ways" style that emphasizes pressure defense along with plenty of running the court.

There also might be some intriguing matchups. UCLA has senior point guard Darren Collison, an All-Pac-10 player. VCU answers with guard Eric Maynor, whose aggressiveness and court vision earned him player-of-the-year honors in the Colonial Athletic Assn.

Both have capable big men, as well. Bruins senior Alfred Aboya, named to the Pac-10's all-defensive team, will square off against counterpart Larry Sanders, a shot blocker and the CAA's defensive player of the year.

On Sunday night, the Rams' coach struck a predictably respectful tone when talking about the game.

"Obviously UCLA's a great program and has a tremendous history," Grant said in a prepared statement. "We have tremendous respect for what they've been able to accomplish."

But anyone expecting his team to be intimidated doesn't know recent history. The Rams defeated Duke in the first round two years ago, with Maynor sinking a jump shot in the last two seconds.

"They're a team that really is a high-octane, run up and down, press you," Howland said.

Which means Collison needs to recover in a hurry from a sore tailbone that dates to the fall he took against Oregon in the regular-season finale. Lingering pain hampered him against USC last week, though Sunday he said: "I feel a lot better."

He and his teammates have added worries.

There was talk about leaving after a morning practice Tuesday, the long flight across several time zones, jet lag and its effect on biorhythms.

With a sour economy, the Bruins weren't expecting that too many fans could follow them to Philadelphia and make the Wachovia Center seem more like home.

And -- although the players insisted they weren't looking past VCU -- there was the specter of Villanova lingering ahead, Duke and Texas in the same half of the draw.

"The last three years we've been spoiled hanging in the West," Collison said. "Now they want to see how we do in the East."




UCLA (25-8) vs.

Virginia Commonwealth (24-9)

How they got here: UCLA -- The 15th-ranked Bruins earned an at-large berth by finishing second in the Pacific 10 Conference regular-season standings. Virginia Commonwealth -- Earned its third berth in the last six years after defeating George Mason, 71-50, in the championship game of the Colonial Athletic Assn. tournament.

Common opponents: None.

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