From the moment coaches Johnny Orr and Jim Harrick learned Sunday that they were headed to Tucson for the NCAA West Regional, they formed a bond, albeit thousands of miles apart.
The Sonora desert, it seems, is their just dessert.
"Tucson is a lot better than Syracuse," said Orr, Iowa State's coach. "At least we're not going to a cold place. I've been to some real bad places."
Harrick, UCLA's coach, had other reasons to like the destination.
"It's nice to have played on that floor," he said. "Being in Tucson, there's nothing there we haven't seen or done. You don't have to spend a day flying across (the) country. I think it is a little more relaxing."
The ninth-seeded Bruins (21-10) will open their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament against the eighth-seeded Cyclones (20-10) at McKale Center on Friday. The winner probably will face No. 1-seeded Michigan in the second round. Michigan will open against 16th-seeded Coastal Carolina.
The Bruins, who finished third in the Pacific 10 Conference, will have an opportunity to offer the friendly folk of Tucson a better performance than Saturday's 99-80 rout by Arizona at McKale.
The Bruins coaches were hoping for a quality opponent to galvanize the team in the first round. In Iowa State of the Big Eight, they believe they got it.
"We could be a very good dark horse team," Harrick said. "We've played a lot of teams tough. We are capable of beating some teams."
As he well knows, the Bruins are capable of losing some, too.
"Our losses have been against teams that are pretty good," Harrick said. "You expect (some of) those teams to beat you."
Orr also knows UCLA's reputation, and is aware of the Bruins' individual ability.
"UCLA always has great athletes," Orr said. "I know they will be very competitive."
Competitiveness was lacking against Arizona, the West's No. 2-seeded team, in Saturday's regular-season finale. Ed O'Bannon, who averages 17 points, made one field goal--the same as seldom-used reserve David Boyle.
But as as the game ended, the players' thoughts were elsewhere.
"The easiest thing to do will be to put this behind us," O'Bannon said.
On Sunday, Harrick's staff was in his office watching tapes of Iowa State. What they saw was a team with five returning starters that relies on its guards, seniors Justus Thigpen and Ron Bayless. Thigpen leads the team with a 17.5 scoring average. Bayless is second at 13.1. Julius Michalik, a sophomore forward from Prievidza, Slovakia, follows at 12.3.
Harrick is familiar with Michalik because he recruited him before Richard Petruska and Jiri Zidek, all graduates of the Czechoslovakian national team program.
Harrick said because Michalik did not immediately pass the Scholastic Aptitude Test, UCLA was unable to recruit him. When the Bruins took the other East Europeans, Michalik chose Iowa State last season.
"I'm happy to see him and to talk to him," said Petruska, who played with Michalik for three years. "I might be guarding him, but he's not a center in the real sense of the word."
Although 6 feet 11, Michalik prefers to shoot from outside, where he is accurate from three-point range. The Cyclones rely on another 6-11 player, Loren Meyer, to control the inside.
Petruska, who has watched his countryman on television this season, said Iowa State's system is similar to UCLA's.
"We know what to expect," he said.
The schools played during the first round of the 1989 tournament in Atlanta with UCLA eliminating Iowa State, 84-74. The Bruins were then defeated by North Carolina in the second round, 88-81.
"I'm personally happy not to travel to the East Coast," said Petruska, echoing the coaches' sentiments. "Even though we lost (Saturday) over there, I like the place."