YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


UCLA has something to prove in NCAA tournament

Sixth-seeded Bruins and Coach Ben Howland need to go further than first game against Minnesota.

March 21, 2013|By Chris Foster

AUSTIN, Texas — UCLA is in the NCAA tournament, which used to be a rite of spring around Westwood.

The Bruins should advance in the NCAA tournament … and advance … and advance. This is a requirement UCLA fans insist on.

No one in the locker room should be happy just to be there. John Wooden retired 38 years ago, but the mandate remains.

The No. 24-ranked Bruins tote that onto the court against Minnesota Friday night in their NCAA tournament opener at the Erwin Center. To please their fan base and silence critics, this can't be a one-and-done experience.

"Any time UCLA is in the tournament, there are expectations," forward David Wear said. "Everyone always expects us to be in the national championship game or the Final Four. It's definitely difficult to live up to."

But, Wear said, "I think we're capable of doing it."

The Bruins went through white-water rapids this season. There was the NCAA investigation surrounding Shabazz Muhammad. Center Joshua Smith and guard Tyler Lamb transferred. And now the Bruins are left to play without Jordan Adams, their second-leading scorer. He had surgery on his broken foot Wednesday.

Still, with all that, the Bruins enter the NCAA tournament as the Pac-12 Conference's regular-season champion.

Adversity, UCLA Coach Ben Howland said, "is something we're used to."

Howland was talking about his team but was then asked about the adversity he'd faced as rumors swirled about his job security — or lack thereof.

"Adversity is a part of athletics. It's a part of what we do," he replied. "Real adversity is someone who's trying to feed their kids and is struggling to make it. Real adversity is having your mortgage underwater. There's so many things that are so much tougher than what we deal with in athletics."

Ah, but trying to tell that to UCLA fans, some not satisfied with a 25-9 record, is a chore.

The Bruins missed the NCAA tournament two of the previous three seasons, a no-no around Westwood. The expectations that came with the nation's No. 2-rated recruiting class this season have caused discontent among some fans, who pay a hefty price for tickets at Pauley Pavilion.

Those things, and 11 national championship banners, follow the Bruins into the tournament.

"Man, there are so many great memories in UCLA's history," guard Larry Drew II said. "It means a lot to wear this jersey and play in the NCAA tournament."

That said, Drew said he has learned it's best not to compare the present to the past. "Obviously, there is a great tradition at UCLA," he said. "What is important is who we are now and what we did to get here."

The Bruins got here by depending on Drew and three freshmen — Muhammad, Adams and Kyle Anderson. Now they are down to two.

No problem, Drew said.

"Our identity has been changing all year," Drew said. "Tyler and Josh transferred. Now Jordan getting hurt. Even last summer, when we had the exhibition games in China, Shabazz had to stay home. We move on and try to develop."

But the letters on the jersey remain the same.

"It brings high expectations," Muhammad said. "You've got to go out and represent, play with a chip on your shoulder."

Muhammad said the chip this time was being an underdog. Minnesota, seeded 11th, is a three-point favorite over sixth-seeded UCLA. There is also the knowledge that Howland's future is in question even though he has won four conference titles and gone to three Final Fours in the last eight seasons.

Minnesota Coach Tubby Smith said Howland has handled the pressure "as well as anybody in the country" while "under the microscope that he's under at UCLA."

For which Muhammad has a solution.

"We've got to win games in the NCAA tournament," Muhammad said. "If we win, everything will be fine."

Minnesota has lost 11 of its last 16 games. Still, mixed in that poor finish was an upset of Indiana, then ranked No. 1.

"We don't buy into [being favored] too much," said Trevor Mbakwe, the Golden Gophers' 6-foot-8, 245-pound senior center. "I know UCLA is thinking the same thing. They feel they are better and they aren't getting the respect that they deserve. They are going to come out and show the world they were wrong."

Or at least their fan base.

"We have more than enough talent to do some damage in this tournament," Drew said. "We didn't come here just to get here. We came out here to win games and represent everything UCLA stands for."

Past and present.

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Los Angeles Times Articles