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BILL PLASCHKE

UCLA won't last the weekend in NCAA tournament, but USC will

For the Bruins, who are used to making it to the Final Four, nothing about this tournament feels right. For the Trojans, who take basketball-related success as a bonus, everything does.

March 19, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM PHILADELPHIA — I am about to write a sentence that will generate dozens of e-mails, followed by a sentence that will generate none.

UCLA will not make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament.

USC will.

For the third consecutive season, the Bruins and Trojans will be participating in the same Big Dance, on two very different floors.

UCLA will be in the grand ballroom, just off the lobby, with the red carpet and camera flashes and big heat.

USC will be in an auxiliary meeting room, down two hallways in the back, dim lights and scuffed tile and cheap chairs.

The Bruins will lose early -- if Virginia Commonwealth doesn't get them, Villanova will -- and all Howland will break loose.

The players are sick of the coach! The coach is sick of the players! Styles must change! Heads must roll!

The Trojans will win early -- neither Boston College nor Michigan State can match their experience and athleticism -- and it will be like, Fight What?

Dear Mr. Plaschke: If USC makes the Final Four, where would Pete Carroll be sitting?

For UCLA, the tournament is a birthright. For USC, it's a bonus. For both teams, in today's level college basketball landscape, the perceptions are boneheaded.

When UCLA loses early, it will break a mind-boggling streak of three consecutive Final Four appearances, and maybe folks should pause from their howling to be happy with the achievement.

When USC wins early, it could lead it to the school's first Final Four appearance in 54 years, and maybe folks will pause from their indifference enough to be frustrated with the drought.

::

For UCLA, nothing about this tournament feels right.

For USC, everything does.

For UCLA, beginning with the long flight that landed the Bruins in Philadelphia this week, the odds are stacked higher than the famous Rocky stairs.

During the 12-game road to their three Final Fours, the Bruins only left California for two of those games, both in Phoenix.

Now they are playing 2,721 miles from home against a team from four hours down the road. If they beat VCU, they would then potentially face a Villanova team that actually lives here.

"They can place us where they want to place us," Bruins guard Darren Collison told reporters in Wednesday's interview session here.

Teammate Josh Shipp sounded the same note of defiance. "It doesn't really matter what people think of us," he said.

True, it is only about what the Bruins think of themselves. But judging from the four losses in their last 10 games, they're not too sure.

In the Pacific 10 Conference tournament they seemed tired, which won't help their 238th-ranked field-goal percentage defense (that is not a misprint) against a VCU team that beat former darling George Mason by 21 in their conference title game and competed well against Oklahoma this season.

One thing the Bruins can't seem to handle is a quick point guard. VCU has a terrific one in senior Eric Maynor.

Another thing the Bruins can't handle is length and strength inside. VCU has a nine-rebound-a-game guy in Larry Sanders.

The Bruins best chance to survive the first round is to listen to their coach, as Ben Howland is a whiz at rushing through film and exploiting those hastily formed tournament matchups.

But if the Bruins beat VCU, Howland's stare will be drowned by Villanova's noise.

Although Wachovia Center isn't Villanova's home gym, the Wildcats occasionally play here, it's still Philly, and it's still nuts.

This season, they only lost to top-seeded Louisville by a point at Wachovia Center, while beating Syracuse by 17 here. Of the Wildcats' seven losses, only two have come in Philadelphia.

Should UCLA cry foul? After playing last year's first two rounds in Anaheim? Please.

Besides, even on a neutral court, UCLA would not have an answer to Villanova's little-big combination of Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham.

UCLA should be done by Saturday afternoon at the latest.

By then, USC should just be getting started.

Call me a sucker, but the cool intensity shown by USC's veterans in their 15-point comeback victory over Arizona State in the Pac-10 championship game was a blueprint for dance success.

The Trojans have everything that a deep-surviving tournament team requires.

Great coach? Tim Floyd. Savvy point guard and team leader? Daniel Hackett.

Big defensive force? Taj Gibson. Freshman star who doesn't know any better? DeMar DeRozan.

The Trojans should have enough to hold off reeling Boston College, losers of five of its last nine games, while then outfighting thick-legged Michigan State to advance to the Sweet 16.

That would land them a game against either young Kansas or inconsistent West Virginia, which could lead them to an Elite Eight matchup against Louisville, where the run will assuredly end, all very exciting, none very surprising.

With their sparkling gym and rich donors national sports pedigree, USC should come to expect madness like this.

In a very different way, with the constant NBA defections giving the sport a parity that makes constant Final Fours virtually impossible, so too should UCLA.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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Follow Plaschke on Twitter at twitter.com/latbillplaschke

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latimes.com/sports

The Taj of all

USC's Gibson has been a

comedian, a shot blocker and

a leader as the Trojans try to make a run in the tournament.

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