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Tulsa looks for history to repeat itself

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Twenty years ago, Ed O'Bannon's geography skills suffered an unfortunate lapse after the UCLA star learned the Bruins would play Tulsa in the NCAA tournament's first round.

"To tell you the truth," O'Bannon said at the time, "I didn't even know Tulsa was in Oklahoma."

Then-UCLA coach Jim Harrick added: "California guys are like that. They don't know past Yuma, Ariz."

In response, Tulsa provided a lesson in both location and basketball, scoring 112 points to end UCLA's tournament in 1994. That history won't be far away when the schools meet Friday at Viejas Arena in San Diego to start the NCAA tournament.

"We've got our hands full," Tulsa's second-year Coach Danny Manning said in comments distributed by the school after learning of its No. 13 seeding, "but I like the matchup."

The victory two decades ago started a run where Tulsa appeared in the NCAA tournament eight times, including three sprints to the round of 16, in 10 years. Lean years followed for the one-time mid-major staple. The regular NCAA trips became visits to college basketball's postseason hinterlands: the National Invitation Tournament and the College Basketball Invitational. This is Tulsa's first NCAA appearance since 2003.

Even a few months ago, such a development seemed unlikely.

Tulsa (21-12) dropped nine of 13 games to start the season. Two losses to woebegone Texas Christian — the Horned Frogs finished the season 9-22 — were among them. The young Tulsa roster then engineered one of the country's dramatic turnarounds by going 17-3 and winning the last 11 games. That includes beating Louisiana Tech in Saturday's Conference USA championship to earn an automatic tournament berth.

Manning attributed the turnaround to gritty, game-long defensive effort.

"That's the key to our success," he said after Saturday's win.

That defense, though, isn't dominant. Tulsa ranks 112th in the country in scoring defense, for instance, and 55th in defensive rebounding. But the effort by a team that leans on five sophomores in the rotation helped overcome five losses to teams that ranked No. 147 or worse in the ratings percentage index.

"We have a lot better understanding of who we are, guarding personnel, locking in defensively," Manning said. "There have been stretches the last three games where we held teams scoreless for an extended period of time. … As long as we go out there and we have that edge on the defensive end we give ourselves a chance to be successful."

This is Manning's first head coaching job after spending 2007 to 2012 as an assistant at Kansas. He is long removed from the 15-year NBA career that started when the Clippers selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 draft.

After Tulsa finished 17-16 last season, the coach is pleased with the path the Golden Hurricane is on. No geography lessons are needed.

"It's just a matter of continuing to develop," Manning said, "and this is the next step in our journey."

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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