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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UCLA isn't the big name in the 76 Classic

Four of the eight teams are in the top 25, and the Bruins aren't one of them.

November 26, 2009|By David Wharton
  • Coach Ben Howland's Bruins will face a deep field of tough competitors, including four top-25 teams, in this weekend's 76 Classic tournament in Anaheim.
Coach Ben Howland's Bruins will face a deep field of tough competitors,… (Danny Moloshok / Associated…)

Just to be clear about this, Ben Howland has nothing against the holidays.

But if the UCLA coach had a choice in the matter, he might postpone Thanksgiving by a week or two.

That's because today also marks the start of the 76 Classic, a four-day tournament that promises some of the toughest college basketball of the early season.

Four of the eight teams descending upon the Anaheim Convention Center reside in the top 25 and another falls into the category of "others receiving votes."

Even the longshots look dangerous, with Long Beach State picked to win the Big West Conference and Portland coming off an upset victory over Oregon.

That would be the same Portland team UCLA faces tonight in a first-round, post-turkey-dinner game.

"The best field of any tournament in the country," Howland said. "You look at all the great teams that are in it."

Butler Coach Brad Stevens expressed similar respect, his 12th-ranked Bulldogs opening against 22nd-ranked Minnesota.

"I mean, you're talking about a loaded field," he said.

What the 76 Classic lacks in star power -- there's no top-5 entry -- it makes up for with depth.

In addition to Butler and Minnesota, the brackets include No. 8 West Virginia and No. 19 Clemson. Texas A&M guard Donald Sloan calls it a March Madness-like situation.

"It's going to have that feel to it," he said. "Some top-caliber teams."

The games, which start at 11 a.m. today, should offer a variety of styles.

West Virginia's Bob Huggins coaches a rugged brand of basketball while Butler runs a crisp, execution offense.

Tubby Smith has turned Minnesota into a winner with a deep bench and pesky defense.

Of immediate concern to UCLA, Portland has a veteran team of sharpshooters.

The young Bruins would prefer a few more weeks of practice, and a few more games, before taking on this level of competition.

They need to improve at pressuring the ball and rebounding against an opponent with good size in the paint. Just as crucial, point guard Jerime Anderson must work his way through cramps that have limited him in the first three games.

"Yesterday his legs weren't as sore as our trainer, Laef Morris, thought they would be," Howland said.

If the next few days present a challenge, they also offer opportunity for players feeling a bit underappreciated since dropping off the radar after a season-opening loss to Cal State Fullerton.

No matter how the Bruins fare against Portland, they will get a top 25 opponent in Butler or Minnesota on Friday night.

"We're going into this tournament as underdogs," UCLA guard Malcolm Lee said. "I just feel that we've got to come with it and we can surprise a lot of people. It's like David versus Goliath."

Texas A&M has a similar chance to make noise, but, playing in the same half of the draw as West Virginia and Clemson, the Aggies don't place too much significance on the next four days.

"It's not going to make or break our season," Coach Mark Turgeon said. "It'll just let us know exactly where we are and where we have to go."

The circumstance for Butler is slightly different. A mid-major powerhouse, the Bulldogs can prove they belong among the elite with a strong showing.

The same might be said for the tournament itself, a three-year-old event looking to establish itself nationally and locally.

Last year, with Fullerton the only Southern California entrant, attendance at the convention center was sparse, the title game between Wake Forest and Baylor drawing fewer than 2,000 fans.

The crowds weren't much larger the year before when USC and freshman sensation O.J. Mayo upset No. 19 Southern Illinois to take the championship.

This time, with UCLA tipping off at approximately 8 p.m. and the game shown on ESPN2, Howland figures his team will attract an audience one way or another.

"There will be a lot of people just finishing with their big turkey dinner, relaxing in front of the TV," he said.

That sort of exposure, plus the chance to knock off a ranked opponent, is enough to get the UCLA players excited about spending their holiday on court.

"Just to go out there and get our name back on the map," Lee said. "This is going to be fun."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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