Southern Discomfort : Wary Bruins Begin Hurricane Watch


UCLA's long, drawn-out season came down to a long, drawn-out telecast Sunday, and, even though he probably knew better, Baron Davis couldn't help but get caught up in the drama and squirm through it, anyway.

First, the East Region was announced. And no UCLA.

Then, the West. The Midwest. No. And no. The top half of the South. No UCLA. With only eight teams to be announced, still, no Bruins.

"I was nervous," the freshman point guard said. "I didn't think we were going to get in. I never knew. I've never been through it. It came down to the last one. . . ."

Finally, after lots of CBS chatter and a commercial break, UCLA, to no great surprise considering its teeter-totter season, showed up as the South's No. 6-seeded team in the Atlanta sub-regional.

The Bruins will play their first-round game on Friday at the Georgia Dome against 11th-seeded Miami (Fla.), one of the last at-large teams to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament field.

"When our name came up, I was relieved," Davis said. "Wooo, at least we made it in."

That emotion, of course, was more properly a part of Miami's post-selection reaction, since the 18-9 Hurricanes had made the NCAA field only once before--in 1960--thanks in large part to having dropped basketball in 1971 before restarting it in 1986.

Meanwhile, for the Bruins, this was the lowest NCAA seeding since 1993, when they were the West's No. 9 team (and lost in overtime to No. 1 Michigan in the second round).

Interestingly, should UCLA get past Miami, which finished in second place behind Syracuse in one division of the Big East and had big victories over Connecticut and West Virginia, No. 3-seeded Michigan once again looms as a potential second-round foe.

But UCLA (22-8, after a 5-5 finish), which ended the regular season with three intense performances (but lost two of them), was not about to start gazing ahead for future big-name opponents, not with the memory of 1996's first-round loss to Princeton still blazing.

"We're not really thinking about Michigan right now, because if you get baited into that, then you start looking ahead," senior Kris Johnson said.

"Having been a part of a team that suffered a first-round loss, we're not going to make that mistake again. We're just concerned about Miami and what they do and what we have to do to win that ballgame. And then we'll talk about Michigan, if they get past Davidson."

Bruin Coach Steve Lavin and his players said all the bland, appropriate things about Miami being a quality team in a quality league, with quality victories.

But, after Saturday's passionate, down-to-the-final-seconds loss to Arizona, the West's No. 1-seeded team, the Bruin players did not deny that the niggling details are far less important than their own current state of mind.

"With us, it's a matter of us coming out and playing our game, keeping up our intensity," Johnson said. "It's not so much who they have or what we have to do to get them.

"If we play the way we're capable of playing, nobody in the country can play with us."

Well . . . UCLA played four games against No. 1-seeded teams this season, and lost all four--to North Carolina by 41 to open the season, by 36 to Duke a few weeks ago, and by 12 and four to Arizona.

The Bruins played 13 games against teams that received NCAA berths, went 6-7 in those games, and in a statistic that may not bode well for deep tournament success, have won back-to-back games only once since January.

Senior guard Toby Bailey, whose play over the past three games, more than anybody else's, has lifted UCLA, said the team's recent intensity reminded him of the school's most recent tournament successes--the 1995 national-title run, and last season's push to the Midwest Regional final.

"The first year I was here and the last one we were kind of coming on and coming together at the end of the year," Bailey said. "And I think that's what we're doing now.

"I have been worried about our team, especially our defense. But, yesterday, I think we just played solid defense for as long as we could. I was real proud of the way everybody came together yesterday.

"And that gave me a lot of confidence going into the tournament. We're definitely going to be able to make some noise."

But that means sustaining a level of play--and a degree of poise--under tournament pressure, that, until recently, UCLA had not been able to sustain for longer than 10 or 15 minutes at a time.

"Oh, we can definitely sustain it," Johnson said. "Because it felt so good playing like that. I mean, it just felt good playing hard, getting tired, playing 'D'. We enjoyed it. Yesterday was a really fun game. So why not play every game like that?

"I don't think people really know what to expect from us. But they're going to be surprised. I can say that. This is the type of year where everybody has to step up, and I have no doubt that everybody on this team is going to step up."

Davis, calmer about an hour after the selection process, had an emphatic answer to a question the Bruins had been unable to address just a few weeks ago, with Jelani McCoy's status in limbo and the team struggling for consistency:

Is UCLA better now than it was?

"A lot better," Davis said. "A lot better. Because everybody's on the same page. That's what we need, everybody not caring about anything except a win.

"I think in the Washington game [on March 1], the second half, this team really found our identity. We're just a run-and-gun team. We're just going to run up the score, we're going to play pressure defense and we're going to rebound. That's what we want to do."

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