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New Mexico's Drew Gordon happy to be an ex-Bruin

Gordon left UCLA two years ago after a falling-out with Ben Howland. His last games with UCLA were in the 76 Classic. He is back in the tournament as a senior, glad to be playing for the Lobos.

November 27, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • New Mexico forward Drew Gordon during a break in the action against Arizona State.
New Mexico forward Drew Gordon during a break in the action against Arizona… (Rick Scuteri / Associated…)

Two years ago, Drew Gordon played what turned out to be his final three games as a UCLA Bruin in the 76 Classic at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The Bruins lost all three games and the next Tuesday Coach Ben Howland announced Gordon was no longer on the team.

"We have expectations of how our players represent the university on and off the court," Howland said two years ago. "When those standards aren't met, there are consequences."

The consequence for Gordon, an outspoken and athletic 6-foot-9 forward who had been highly recruited out of San Jose Archbishop Mitty High, was that he transferred to New Mexico. Now, Gordon is back at the 76 Classic.

The Lobos (3-2) beat Washington State Friday after losing in overtime to Santa Clara on Thursday. New Mexico will play Boston College (2-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday in a consolation game.

For Gordon, things couldn't be better.

"I'm just in a better place," he said. "I loved my teammates at UCLA; I love my teammates here, and playing for [Coach] Steve Alford is one of the best experiences I could possibly have.

"I feel like he listens and he's a players' coach first. He takes into consideration what a player has to say and he will develop a relationship with a player. That's very important to me, and when I transferred I made sure I got it right because you don't get many do-overs."

When Gordon abruptly left UCLA, his starting spot was taken by then-freshman Reeves Nelson. Nelson, from Modesto, and Gordon are still close. Now Nelson is, as Gordon said, "Butting heads with Howland like I did."

"I've grown up with Reeves," Gordon said. "I feel for what he's going through. Unfortunately, I think it's going to be a long year for Reeves. He got off to a bad start and once you're in the doghouse, you can't get out."

Nelson has already served a suspension this year for insubordinate behavior, and then missed the team flight last week to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.

Gordon is averaging 9.6 points and a team-leading 8.8 rebounds for New Mexico, which is expected to be a strong contender in the Mountain West Conference.

Another top player for the Lobos is Kendall Williams, a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard from Rancho Cucamonga and Los Osos High who committed to UCLA before the Bruins indicated they were no longer interested.

"He's a big contributor," Gordon said of Williams, who is averaging 11 points a game and scored 17 Friday night. "I'm glad Coach Howland stopped recruiting him so we could recruit him. He's something special."

Alford said he felt as if he received a gift when Gordon called him after leaving UCLA.

"Players with that size and athletic ability just don't come to our conference," Alford said. "He's been a pleasure."

And as for UCLA's 1-4 start that includes, besides the ongoing drama with his buddy Nelson, no wins over Division I programs, Gordon shrugged.

"I'm sad to see the guys lose, but I'm glad I got out," Gordon said. "It's a very bittersweet feeling."

For the title

St. Louis (5-0) and Oklahoma (4-0), both undefeated yet unranked, will meet Sunday at 6 p.m. in the championship game of the 76 Classic.

Oklahoma is coached by Lon Kruger, who took Nevada Las Vegas to the title here last year. The Sooners advanced to the championship game in an 85-73 win over Santa Clara that included a 20-0 first-half run and 26 points from Steven Pledger.

St. Louis beat Villanova, 80-68, in the other semifinal. The Billikens trailed by as many as 10 in the first half but never led by fewer than nine points in the final 14 minutes.

Kruger said the key for his team against the Billikens will be to take good care of the ball and to take good shots. "They're bigger than us," Kruger said, "more experienced and more physical."

Also Sunday, UC Riverside (1-4) and Washington State (2-3), both winless in two tournament games, meet at 10:30 a.m.; followed by Boston College against New Mexico at 1 p.m.; and Villanova (4-1) against Santa Clara (4-2) in the third-place game at 3:30 p.m.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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