The scene at the Beamon Student Life Center in Nashville on Sunday was one of excitement, and perhaps just a bit of awe. The Belmont University Bruins, making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament, will face the UCLA Bruins, making their 40th appearance in the event in search of their 12th championship.
The reaction at the J.D. Morgan Center on the Westwood campus was a collective shrug by the Bruins. Not one player questioned had even heard of those other Bruins, winners of the Atlantic Sun Conference and owners of a 20-10 record, including 15-5 in the conference. They are seeded 15th in the Oakland regional.
UCLA, the Pacific 10 Conference champion and a winner of seven in a row, is seeded second, the first time the Bruins have been that high since 1997, a year in which UCLA reached the Elite Eight before losing to Minnesota.
By the time UCLA (27-6) and Belmont tip off around 1:55 p.m. Thursday at San Diego State’s Cox Arena, be assured the Bruins of Westwood will know everything there is to know about the Bruins of Nashville.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland will see to that.
Using the we-are-only-thinking-about-our-next-game coaching cliche so often this season that it has become his mantra, Howland was at it again Sunday, deflecting all questions not Belmont-related.
No, he hasn’t thought about other possible regional opponents such as Gonzaga, Pittsburgh (his former team) or Memphis, which handed UCLA one of its defeats.
He won’t talk about the fact that, if his team wins its games Thursday and Saturday, it could reach the Final Four without leaving California, the next two games being in Oakland.
“Right now,” Howland said, “it’s just Belmont, Belmont.”
Having given his team Sunday and today off, he plans to show the players “a little bit” of film on Belmont on Tuesday, give them an extensive scouting report Wednesday and then revisit Belmont’s strengths and weaknesses Thursday before the game.
“There will be upsets in the first round,” Howland said, “and we want to make sure we are not involved in one of them.”
Said guard Arron Afflalo: “All season, Coach Howland has been saying every game is the biggest. I know he’ll be saying it again this time, and it is the biggest right now.”
Freshman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who comes from Cameroon, is excited about being in the tournament, and not just because it’s his first. If UCLA should advance as far as the Sweet 16 round, the games probably will be shown back home, he said, and that would be the first time his parents and the rest of his family will have seen him play for the Bruins.
Another freshman, guard Darren Collison, is excited for a different reason.
“I grew up watching the tournament, rooting for Arizona,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m actually going to play in it.”
At the other end of the experience spectrum is Cedric Bozeman, a fifth-year senior who knows that every game from here on could be his last in a Bruin uniform.
“This is it, one loss and you’re out,” he said. “But playing in the tournament is why you come to UCLA.”
Guard Jordan Farmar, having been through the tournament routine a year ago when the Bruins, seeded 11th, were eliminated in their first game by Texas Tech, said he would caution the freshmen not to let the atmosphere of heightened excitement affect them.
“Once the ball goes up, everything is the same,” he said.
In Belmont, UCLA will be facing a team that averaged 81.8 points per game, shooting 50% from the field, and gave up 75.9 points.
“We are going to see some of their tendencies over the next few days, see what they like to do,” said Afflalo, UCLA’s top defender. “We are going to learn a lot about them over the next few days.
“But we can’t put pressure on ourselves. When you do, that’s how a No. 15 can upset a No. 2.”