Cal State Northridge's Allan Guei dribbles past Brigham Young's… (Jim McAuley / Associated…)
To remind his players that nothing is impossible, Cal State Northridge basketball Coach Bobby Braswell placed photographs of the Matadors' November 2000 upset of UCLA on display in their locker room.
"I'm determined not to let that become ancient history," Braswell said of the team's lone victory over UCLA in seven tries. "I believe that in order to know what you can be and who you are, you've got to understand your history."
The question now is whether history will repeat itself Wednesday.
The Matadors launched this season with six straight wins, their best start since they moved up to Division I status in 1990, before they lost at Brigham Young on Saturday. They were up by a point in the last five minutes, but the youthfulness that fuels their enthusiasm became inexperience that hurt them down the stretch of an 87-75 loss.
Normally the Matadors wouldn't be given much of a chance against the Bruins (4-2), but this isn't a normal year. Coach Ben Howland's team, which started the season without suspended guard Shabazz Muhammad and lost junior guard Tyler Lamb to a transfer, is coming off a 70-68 home loss Sunday to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
"That was a shocker," Matadors junior guard Josh Greene said.
Although leading scorer Stephan Hicks said the Matadors shouldn't change their approach and "just have to come in prepared and play great team defense," this is a big challenge for a young team.
"We told our guys at the beginning of the year that every season there's a couple of big O's out there — obstacles or opportunities, depending on how you look at them," Braswell said. "And when you look at a game like this, if you look at it a certain way you can see it as a big obstacle standing in front of you and very difficult to get through and get over.
"But if you look at it as an opportunity to do something that most people don't think you can do, it's a wonderful thing. We've talked to our guys about the fact that throughout the year we're going to have some opportunities to do some great things, and this is one of those moments."
Braswell, in his 17th year as coach, has another speedy, up-tempo team. The Matadors, whose 6-0 start included wins over Pepperdine, Tulsa and Siena, lead the Big West in offensive rebounding average (15.1) and rank second in scoring (79.3) and steals (9.7). Greene leads the team with 35 assists and 13 steals in seven games.
Hicks, a 6-foot-6 guard/forward from Thousand Oaks, was the Big West freshman of the year last season and tops them in scoring (18.4 points) and rebounding (8.4). For basketball pedigree, the Matadors have freshman guard Landon Drew, younger brother of UCLA senior guard Larry Drew II and son of former NBA player and current Atlanta Hawks Coach Larry Drew.
The Bruins could be wobbly Wednesday or they could be angry and motivated by their loss. Greene said the Matadors will be prepared for anything.
"It goes both ways, but at the same time we're going to come out very mad too, because we feel like we should have won on Saturday," he said. "Now we have another opportunity to knock off one of the most prestigious schools, a powerhouse. This is another road game for us and it will test what kind of team we have.
"I honestly feel like our team is going to be one of the best in the conference and we should win the Big West. Tournament-wise, I feel like if we play the way that we've been playing all year the sky's the limit. I feel like we've already opened up some eyes a little bit. It's all about us, not worrying about the other teams, and us playing as hard as we can play and playing as unselfish as we can and everything else will take care of itself."
To win Wednesday they'll have to rebound well against the bigger Bruins. But Braswell said the Cal Poly Mustangs' lineup was smaller than the Matadors'.
"Cal Poly had a good game plan for them, and their whole thing was to control tempo and slow the game down as much as they could," Braswell said. "Mixing up their defenses kept UCLA off their rhythm. UCLA wasn't able to get an offensive rhythm going. Those guys are young and they've got great talent. They've got a great team. Coaches like myself and the guys at Cal Poly, we just try to do what we can to keep them off balance as much as we can."
And try to make some history along the way.