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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Count UCLA among teams that are off the bubble, could cause trouble

The list of dangerous teams that title aspirants really don't want to play in the NCAA tournament is pretty long and pretty scary. It includes Notre Dame, St. John's, North Carolina . . . and the red-hot Bruins.

March 01, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • UCLA's Reeves Nelson celebrates with fans following the Bruins' victory over Arizona at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday.
UCLA's Reeves Nelson celebrates with fans following the Bruins'… (Christina House / For The…)

It's time to forget February and separate the schools you didn't want to play in December and January, Texas and Villanova, from the teams you don't want to play now.

Timing is everything as the NCAA tournament approaches.

Texas started out 11-0 in Big 12 Conference play and seemed on track to challenge for a championship in Houston, site of this year's Final Four.

Wouldn't it be cool if the Longhorns replicated the Dallas Cowboys' feat of winning this year's Super Bowl in their home state?

Oh, wait . . . those best-laid plans didn't materialize.

Following Monday's home loss to Kansas State, Texas Coach Rick Barnes uttered nine words you never want to hear in March: "I'm concerned about the way we are playing basketball."

Texas (24-6) has lost three of its last four. Villanova was 16-1 and ranked No. 7 the week of Jan. 17 with a decent shot of winning the national championship had the title game been played on Groundhog Day.

The Wildcats have since gone 5-8 which, in Philadelphia, is grounds for getting booed by Santa Claus.

Then there are the rim risers. You'd rather see the IRS at your porch than these teams on your NCAA bracket docket.

•Brigham Young (27-2): Saturday's 13-point win at San Diego State might have been a pivot point toward April.

"I can see them in a Final Four situation," said Reggie Miller, the former UCLA and NBA star who is working this year's NCAA tournament for CBS/TNT.

Miller is particularly fond of the guard with a pure shooting stroke who seems to crave the attention of opposing partisans.

"I love a player who can go on the road and silence a crowd," Miller said.

So, Jimmer Fredette reminds Miller of someone he knows?

"Yes," Miller joked. "Someone very close to me."

Fredette proved Saturday to be more than a "me" machine, passing for nine assists under intense defensive pressure.

And Fredette, the nation's leading scorer with a 27.3 average, still scored 25.

Miller isn't sure Fredette, at 6 feet 2, is tall enough to contend with more physical and faster NBA guards.

"I don't know how his game translates in the pros," Miller said. "But in college, how can you stop that?"

BYU moved up to No. 3 in the polls and could be in line for a No. 1 seeding in the West, which would route the Cougars through Denver and Anaheim.

"I love his demeanor," Miller said of Fredette. "I love how he looks at the fans, and all his grunting and growling. Nothing fazes him."

If BYU's supporting cast can keep making the kind of open looks Fredette created in San Diego, the Cougars might turn Houston into Phi Jimmer Jamma.

Others on our NCAA watch-out list:

•Notre Dame (24-5): The Irish just closed out a 17-0 home season as guard Ben Hansbrough and forward Tim Abromaitis combined for 16 threes and 60 points against Villanova. We sense Hansbrough, like older brother Tyler, knows what it takes to push a team to the Final Four.

•St. John's (19-9): This team lost in December — to Fordham. But Coach Steve Lavin's Red Storm is suddenly red-hot, with six wins against top-15 opponents. Dwight Hardy is coming off a 34-point performance in a win at Villanova. The Red Storm only cracked the top 25 last week but has suddenly become very Big East boisterous.

•North Carolina (22-6): The Tar Heels are a six-point loss at Duke from being undefeated since Jan. 16. Coach Roy Williams should have clipped and framed last weekend's Maryland box score in which guards Dexter Strickland and Kendall Marshall combined for 18 assists in the same game forwards Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller combined for 46 points. North Carolina plays host to Duke on Saturday. Word is it's a big rivalry.

•UCLA (21-8): John Wooden's great-grandson scored the last basket in pre-renovation Pauley Pavilion, Ben Howland wept afterward, and then the Bruins got snubbed in Monday's polls. No one in Westwood's theatre department is asking, "What's my motivation?" Some have UCLA projected to be seeded eighth in the East, with a possible second-round matchup against top-ranked Ohio State. The Buckeyes should not be thrilled.

•Butler (21-9): There was life after Gordon Hayward, the golden-boy hero of last year's run to the NCAA title game. It just took the Bulldogs half a season to regroup. Butler started 4-4 but has won seven straight entering the Horizon League tournament. There's not enough in the tank for another Final Four foray, but Butler is capable of wrecking someone else's "Hoosiers" dream.

•Gonzaga (22-9): The Bulldogs crawled back from a 4-5 start to claim a share of the West Coast Conference regular-season title with a stirring overtime win at St. Mary's. Gonzaga has won seven straight to get off the bubble with a chance to recapture its glory years as a real NCAA tournament underdog.

•Kansas State (21-9): Coach Frank Martin underwent surgery Tuesday to repair cartilage in his right knee, the good news being he doesn't handle the ball. Kansas State has pulled out of NCAA bubble abyss with recent wins over Kansas and Texas, while Jacob Pullen is the kind of star scorer who can pull you out of tournament scrapes.

•Xavier (22-6): These perennial pests have won 14 of 15 after piling up five losses before Jan. 8. Imagine Syracuse's horror as a potential No. 3-seeded team, winning its first NCAA game only to get paired against the Musketeers. Last year, Xavier, as a No. 6, bounced Minnesota and Pittsburgh out of the tournament before losing in double overtime to Kansas State.

There are others out there that might cause a stink.

Reggie Miller says watch out for Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt?

"Remember, you heard it here first," Miller said.

OK, Reggie, but that's a long shot . . . even for you.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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