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Blue-Ribbon Victory a Message for NCAA

UCLA’s victory over Duke on Sunday ruins everything for the NCAA tournament selection committee.

Usually, the nine-member board can convene in early March and rest easy knowing the Pacific-10 conference champion can be expeditiously considered and bracketed to a region somewhere east of the Continental Divide.

You know the history: UCLA wins the 1996 conference title, one season removed from winning its 11th national title, and gets the No. 4 seeding in the Southeast Regional in Indianapolis, where the Bruins lose to Princeton, a monkey wrench of a first-round draw if ever there was one.

UCLA has won nine more national championships than Duke--has won a title more recently, in fact--but the Bruins still seem to fight a credibility problem on the national landscape that tilts heavily toward the Atlantic Coast.

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“I thought they got messed over,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the Bruins’ NCAA tournament draw last year. “The Pac-10 winner should be given great support, just like the ACC winner.”

Everyone within ear shot of Dick Vitale knows the ACC is, by leaps and bounds, the best conference in the country this year, yet UCLA’s 73-69 victory over No. 6 Duke should in the least restore some faith in the Pacific Rim.

This is not to say tournament selectors are prejudiced in any way, even though the committee is chaired by Terry Holland, the athletic director at Virginia, an ACC school.

But let’s just say that if you’re a West Coast team and want to make waves in the tournament bracket come March, you’d better make a big splash in late February.

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Sunday, UCLA did a big, fat cannonball. It should bolster the Bruins’ present No. 17 poll ranking by three or four positions.

If I voted in the Associated Press poll, I would move the Bruins past No. 14 Maryland and No. 7 Iowa State, both losers this weekend, and ahead of No. 13 Arizona, which UCLA swept.

You could argue for moving UCLA ahead of fading No. 15 Louisville, which is taking Southern Mississippi to overtime these days, overlooking the fact the Cardinals beat UCLA this season.

Funny how fast things change. Two weeks ago, UCLA appeared headed toward NCAA purgatory again, another about-to-be Pac-10 champion destined for a mediocre No. 4 or No. 5 seeding.

Today, a blue-ribbon highway beckons.

“This is the beginning of a long road for us,” senior forward Charles O’Bannon said.

A top-10 ranking and No. 2 NCAA tournament seeding are suddenly not out of the question. If the Bruins win their remaining four conference games--they host the Oregon schools next week before wrapping up at the Washingtons--they will finish at 21-7.

Their national reputation might be fully restored after having fallen out of the top 25 rankings for seven weeks between Dec. 16 and Feb. 10.

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There is no underestimating this victory over Duke. The Bruins have beaten highly ranked Arizona twice this season, but that was regarded by some as a Pac-10 thing.

When the tournament committee sat down to examine UCLA’s nonconference schedule, it would have pored over an opening home loss to Tulsa, a home blowout to No. 1 Kansas and three-point defeat at Louisville on Jan. 25.

Another “close” loss to Duke would not have gone over well.

“We’re not into moral victories,” UCLA junior Kris Johnson said.

Johnson and teammates are trying to restore the swagger of a program whose fans used to not rush the court after a victory at Pauley Pavilion as they did Sunday.

“I don’t think they really thought we could beat Duke,” Johnson said.

A great football coach once said that, after a scoring a touchdown, you should act like you’ve been there before.

That should always be the attitude at Pauley, college basketball’s mecca.

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Charles O’Bannon says it is time to restore faith and order.

“Without question,” O’Bannon said. “This is a nonleague game UCLA is supposed to win. At home, with a veteran squad. It was a game we expected to win.”

Even Krzyzewski seemed a little surprised at the frenzied reaction to UCLA’s victory.

“UCLA usually has played very well, in the history of college basketball,” he said.

Duke players acknowledge afterward that UCLA is a team on the rise.

“They’re pretty good,” said junior guard Ricky Price, who led the Blue Devils with 17 points. “Athletically, no team in the nation can match UCLA. They’re capable of doing big things, they have that kind of talent.”

Trajan Langdon’s praise was a little more guarded, knowing that had he made a few more three pointers--he was three for 13 beyond the arc--it might have been a different ending.

“They’re a great team,” Langdon said, “A very athletic team. On top of that, they played a very smart game today. But I don’t think we played well at all and we lost by four points.”

As for getting back on the college basketball map, and putting a bug in Vitale’s ear on the way out of town, the Bruins say that is all well and good.

“It was in the back of our minds,” Johnson said. “But we just wanted to beat Duke. We knew maybe a seeding was at stake, but our own personal pride is what we’re playing for now.”


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