Mar 25, 2008 Sports Editor Uncategorized
First, those end-of-season games with Stanford and California, and now Texas A&M. All had great chances to beat UCLA. All could not. And all are convinced that a whistle blown here, or a whistle not blown there, prevented conquest.
This has become a theme in recent weeks — that the Bruins, the no. 1 seed going into the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional in Phoenix, is getting the red-carpet treatment from the striped shirts due to name, reputation and location.
All the games in question took place in Southern California, either at Pauley Pavilion or, in the case of A&M, in Anaheim, where the Aggies’ Disney ending was short-circuited.
Having blown a double-digit lead in the second half, and having seen Darren Collison drive and score a lay-up with 9.5 seconds left, A&M still had enough time to tie or win its second-round encounter with the Bruins.
Donald Sloan drove to the lane and, ignoring wide-open teammates on the sides for a possible winning 3-pointer, forced up a shot. It looked, on replay, that two UCLA players hacked him, but no whistle.
Instead, the Bruins celebrated, but with wary concern. Were it not for Collison’s clutch play or Kevin Love playing like the Pac-10 Player of the Year that he is, a third straight Final Four trip would be answered in the negative by this point.
And now it’s on to the desert, where UCLA, despite its cliffhanger routine, should still be the overwhelming favorite to go further east to San Antonio. That’s helped, in no small part, by the fact that the other big names in the bracket got tossed aside in the Dance’s opening weekend.
Duke was always a fragile no. 2 seed because it lacked size and needed the 3-pointers to fall. Neither thing happened in the first round against Belmont, requiring Gerald Henderson’s drive and lay-up in the final seconds to offer a great escape against Vince Gill’s alma mater.
West Virginia, by contrast, offered no escape route. Down all through the first half, the Mountaineers took full advantage of the Blue Devils’ Arctic drought and powered ahead with great efforts from the expected (Joe Alexander, 22 points and 11 rebounds) and the unexpected (Joe Mazzulla, with 13 points, 11 boards and eight assists off the bench).
So the team once tagged for 10th in the Big East has caught on to Bob Huggins, who has redeemed himself by going home to WVU after the hits he took (on and off the court) at Cincinnati and Kansas State.
Now, can the Mountaineers carry that magic to Phoenix? No. 3 seed Xavier begs to differ, having already shown that it can shrug off bad starts and impose its will on the opposition.
Late to the party in last Thursday’s opening round, the Musketeers allowed surprise SEC champion Georgia to start fast, but used relentless defensive pressure to wear the Bulldogs down. Two days later, Purdue got the same treatment, its youthful fast start counteracted by Xavier’s veteran intensity and poise down the stretch.
While all this goes on, UCLA prepares for Western Kentucky, the able survivor of a wild Tampa bracket where the mid-majors supplied some Friday excitement.
First, the Hilltoppers blew a big second-half lead to Drake, watched it go to overtime, then pulled it out on Ty Rogers’ outrageous 3-pointer (three Drake defenders in his face) as the buzzer sounded, a 101-99 decision that was the best game of the first round.
Hours later, it was San Diego’s turn to surprise with its first-ever tournament win. Thought by many to be UCLA’s biggest roadblock, Connecticut could not even get out of the first round, beaten in its own overtime thriller when the Toreros’ De’Jon Jackson hit a tough baseine jumper with 1.2 seconds left.
Following all this, you just knew the WKU-USD game would be anticlimactic. NBA prospect Courtney Lee made it so, bouncing back from his quiet Drake effort to drop 29 points on the Toreros as the Hilltoppers made its first Sweet 16 since 1993.
Both Darrin Horn, who coaches WKU, and Sean Miller, who pilots Xavier, are young coaches on the make, guys that could jump to higher-profile gigs in the off-season if they just say the world.
First, though, there’s the action in Phoenix, and the question — can anyone put together the great effort, and get the required breaks, to keep UCLA from another Final Four?
Western Kentucky will try, but the Bruins will need no luck to get past them. Xavier will use its balance and poise to foil West Virginia’s dreams, but it might be too much to expect the Musketeers in San Antonio. UCLA should prevail — and maybe they’ll do so without any need for a last-second bailout.