First Step Might Be the Toughest
Late Saturday, Rico Hines echoed the feelings of his down but undaunted UCLA basketball team when asked about the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament.
“I don’t care if they send us to China,” he said.
The Bruins were sent to a place even more remote.
To play a team whose style is just as foreign.
It is difficult to find something unluckier than UCLA in Indianapolis in March.
Maybe UCLA against an opponent whose past and present include Dick Vitale and Michael Jordan?
That would be University of Detroit Mercy, although, according to those who have faced their nationally second-ranked defense, you can pretty much drop the Mercy.
Once coached by Vitale, currently good enough to keep a kid named Jordan deep on their bench, the Titans won’t be alone when they take the floor against UCLA in the first round Thursday.
Accompanying them will be the ghosts of you-know-who.
Will there ever again be a preview of a UCLA first-round game that does not mention Princeton?
Only this time, that silly little slipper fits.
In 1996 in Indianapolis, a similarly seeded UCLA team lost to that similar underdog in the first round.
I can still see that game-winning back-door play. I can still see Jim Harrick’s wrenched face on the sideline.
It was the last anyone saw of the latter, because Harrick was fired the following fall.
Now it is Steve Lavin’s turn.
Although he has long since established himself as the UCLA boss, this is yet another rite of passage, Lavin going to Indianapolis to meet his Princeton.
His history says he will have better luck.
Already in this tournament he has had good luck.
UCLA loses its season finale to Arizona . . . yet it is Arizona that is sent to a region (Midwest) that includes last year’s national championship finalists Kentucky and Utah plus Big Ten champion Michigan State?
While UCLA gets sent to a South Regional where none of the top four seeded teams was conference champion?
If the Bruins beat Detroit, no telling how far they can ride this golden parachute.
If they beat Detroit, they need only to dispatch of a clunky Big Ten team like Ohio State to advance to the Sweet 16.
And once there, awaiting them could only be the likes of injury-hampered Maryland, novice Auburn, or similarly inconsistent St. John’s.
The Bruins’ wild style and bold attitude could run smooth on the road to the Final Four.
If they beat Detroit.
I’m certain of one person who thinks they can’t.
“U-D could get in there and make some noise and maybe shock some people and get in the Sweet 16,” Dick Vitale recently told the Detroit News.
This is the last time I will quote him about this team. Promise.
But he’s right.
Detroit is not one of those hyphenated schools that shows up for 10 minutes every spring, giving the world a glimpse of a barren campus, bewildered cheerleaders, and 50-point defeat.
Detroit has been there. Last year, in fact.
Detroit has upset a higher-seeded team in the first round. Last year, in fact.
All five of this year’s starters were around last year when the 10th-seeded Titans defeated St. John’s in the first round.
The coach, Perry Watson, was an assistant at Michigan during the Fab Five years.
None of this is new. Nor distant.
The loyal fans of the inner-city school are just about a four-hour drive from Indianapolis.
Considering the Detroit enrollment is 7,300, yet there were 8,100 in the stands when they clinched their Midwest Collegiate Conference title, there should be a few blue-painted fans in the stands Thursday.
Considering that fellow MCC member Butler is located in Indianapolis, the visitors won’t be the only ones cheering for Detroit.
The matchups are equally scary.
Baron Davis will have a worthy opponent in Jermaine Jackson, a 6-foot-4 NBA prospect and that rare guard who leads his team in assists and rebounds.
Earl Watson will have his hands full with leading scorer Rashad Phillips, who is 5-foot-9 but plays huge.
The Bruins get a break in that the Titans also don’t have a dominant big man.
But the Titan defense keeps the score down, way down, to 54.7 points a game.
The Bruins are 0-3 when scoring less than 60 points this season.
Detroit is not a great team. The Titans did not beat a great team among their 24 victories this season, losing by one point at Iowa, seven points at Michigan, and 13 points at Massachusetts.
Any other place, any other time of year, this is not a big deal.
But this is Indianapolis, and its madness time, and that back door closes for no one, and doesn’t UCLA know it.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com.