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UCLA BASKETBALL

They're lining up to pick against UCLA in first round of NCAA tournament.

Virginia Commonwealth has become a trendy choice to pull an early upset, but Bruins are trying to take it in stride.

March 19, 2009|David Wharton

PHILADELPHIA — Forgive the UCLA players if they suspect everyone is rooting against them tonight.

No sooner was their first-round game in the NCAA tournament announced than a well-known television analyst picked them to be upset by Virginia Commonwealth.

Then, President Obama penciled them in as losers on his March Madness bracket.

"I mean, we've got the United States against us," forward Drew Gordon said.

Or, as swingman Michael Roll said, "I voted for McCain."

If nothing else, the sixth-seeded Bruins can play the people's underdog when they face 11th-seeded VCU in an East Regional game at the Wachovia Center.

It's a big change from the last three seasons when the Bruins sailed into March Madness as a No. 1- or No. 2-seeded team, playing close to home, a big favorite through the first few rounds.

Not that their opponents are buying into popular sentiment.

"We're not going to think about everybody's predictions," VCU guard Eric Maynor said.

Much of the attention surrounding this game has focused on the matchup between Maynor and the Bruins' Darren Collison, point guards who figure to be high picks in the next NBA draft.

UCLA Coach Ben Howland had no shortage of praise for Maynor, who is averaging better than 22 points and six assists.

"He has a great feel for the game, a great change of pace, a great ability to go from stopping to starting quickly with the change of speeds," Howland said.

And, while the Rams prefer to score in transition, taking advantage of Maynor's court vision on the fly, they also use picks in the half-court offense to free him for open shots.

"It doesn't matter who's guarding him if you're not doing a good job hedging those screens," Howland said.

But the real story of this game could be defense in a matchup of teams that emphasize shutting down opponents. While UCLA sticks with man-to-man, VCU has mixed in a few zones and extended pressure past half court, limiting the other team to less than 40% shooting.

"Doing what we do," forward Larry Sanders called it. "Trying to impose our will on the defensive end."

Sanders, who has a 91-inch wingspan, has blossomed into an intimidating shot blocker. He will likely match up against UCLA center Alfred Aboya, who has made his mark this season as a tireless defender, adept at drawing charges in the lane.

VCU Coach Anthony Grant said he is particularly concerned that Aboya and fellow seniors Collison and Josh Shipp have so much postseason experience.

"You have three guys who have played in three Final Fours," Grant said.

Still, this March brings a new kind of experience for UCLA's veterans, unaccustomed to traveling across multiple time zones this early in the tournament.

The Bruins also don't figure to have many fans in the Wachovia Center at tipoff. With the VCU campus only about a four-hour drive from Philadelphia, that could make for a hostile environment.

Add it to the list of indignities that 18th-ranked UCLA has suffered since CBS analyst Seth Davis picked them to lose during the network's Selection Sunday broadcast.

Some of the Bruins seemed a little incredulous that VCU has become the trendy pick, given that the Rams have losses to North Carolina Wilmington and Delaware on their record.

"I just think it's kind of funny that one person says it and everybody jumps on the bandwagon," Roll said.

The VCU players think it's kind of funny too. Sanders smiled at the mention of Obama's pick. "We can't get wrapped up in it," he said, "but I think it's nice to enjoy it."

Maybe UCLA is paying for several lackluster showings during the regular season or its poor shooting in a loss to USC in the Pac-10 tournament.

Either way, freshman guard Jrue Holiday said that he and his teammates have adopted a new attitude in Philadelphia:

"It's kind of an us-against-the-world mentality."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

First-round

schedule

All times PDT:

EAST REGIONAL

Today at Greensboro, N.C.:

Texas (22-11) vs. Minnesota (22-10), 4:10 p.m.

Duke (28-6) vs. Binghamton (23-8), 30 min. following

Today at Philadelphia:

Villanova (26-7) vs. American (24-7), 4:20 p.m.

UCLA (25-8) vs. Virginia Commonwealth (24-9), 30 min. following

Friday at Boise, Idaho:

Xavier (25-7) vs. Portland State (23-9), 4:25 p.m.

Florida State (25-9) vs. Wisconsin (19-12), 30 min. following

Friday at Dayton, Ohio:

Oklahoma State (22-11) vs. Tennessee (21-12), 9:25 a.m.

Pittsburgh (28-4) vs. ETSU (23-10), 30 min. following

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WEST REGIONAL

Today at Kansas City, Mo.:

Memphis (31-3) vs. Cal State Northridge (17-13), 9:25 a.m.

California (22-10) vs. Maryland (20-13), 30 min. following

Today at Philadelphia:

BYU (25-7) vs. Texas A&M (23-9), 9:30 a.m.

Connecticut (27-4) vs. Chattanooga (18-16), 30 min. following

Today at Portland, Ore.

Purdue (25-9) vs. Northern Iowa (23-10), 11:30 a.m.

Washington (25-8) vs. Mississippi State (23-12), 30 min. following

Friday at Boise, Idaho:

Marquette (24-9) vs. Utah State (30-4), 9:30 a.m.

Missouri (28-6) vs. Cornell (21-9), 30 min. following

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SOUTH REGIONAL

Today at Greensboro, N.C.:

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