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UCLA’s path a lesson for USC

Carpet for one. Gravel for the other.

A straight and heavenly path for one. A potholed hell for the other.

USC and UCLA received their directions Sunday for the Road to San Antonio.

But, no, it’s not the same road.

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One is going to be dancing, the other is going to be dodging.

One was given two weeks worth of gas, the other was told to get out and start pushing.

UCLA, awarded the top seeding in the NCAA basketball tournament’s West Regional, has a trip so relatively simple, it can prop up Luc Richard Mbah a Moute’s sore ankle for two weeks and put it on cruise control.

USC, given the sixth seeding in the Midwest Regional, didn’t even get cruise control. Or power steering. Or air conditioning. Or a map.

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UCLA, with the easiest path of all top-seeded teams, plays two simple games in front of a home crowd in Anaheim, then takes its fans to Phoenix for two more winnable games, its toughest probably coming in the regional final against outclassed but second-seeded Duke.

USC, meanwhile, was sent to Omaha to duel with college basketball’s player of the year in Kansas State’s Michael Beasley.

Then, if the Trojans survive the first round, they will probably face their nightmare matchup in patient and persistent Wisconsin.

UCLA should reach the Final Four for a third consecutive season, and once there, if everyone is healthy, it could face a winnable semifinal game against Memphis or Texas.

USC is talented enough to go nearly as far, but it will probably not reach next week.

And, oh yes, lest we forget about the Southland’s other tournament entry, Cal State Fullerton . . . well, forget about Cal State Fullerton.

Seeded 14th in the Midwest, the Titans play the part of Trojans appetizer by enduring the first-round game against Wisconsin.

For the big two teams in town, the lessons of Sunday are as simple and unadorned as those games in November, or on a winter weeknight, or when nobody is watching.

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You must win those games. To earn a good seeding under one of the biggest spotlights in sports, you must play well when nobody seems to care but you.

“Early in the year, I don’t think we understood the urgency of the situation,” said Taj Gibson of his inexperienced USC teammates. “Now, we do.”

Early in the season, the Trojans lost to Mercer. Then in January they lost three consecutive games to Cal, Stanford and Washington State. In early March, they gave away a game at Arizona State.

Even though they finished with six wins in their last eight games, the early stuff hurt their seeding, and toughened their task.

“We have a very young team, and those are the sorts of things that come with it,” said Coach Tim Floyd.

As for UCLA, well, remember when Steve Lavin’s teams would struggle early in the season and finish strong before being victimized by tough tournament matchups?

Upon his hiring five years ago, the first thing Ben Howland proclaimed was that every game will count. Turns out, he was right.

Despite being a prime target in every town this winter, the Bruins suffered only one true letdown loss, at Washington, and that was one of the games missed by Mbah a Moute.

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“We never take a day off around here,” said Lorenzo Mata-Real. “Every game we try to win, because we know what it means in the long run.”

So, now, for the Bruins, it should be a long run.

Start with their first-round game again Mississippi Valley State, from Itta Bena, Miss. It’s the school of Jerry Rice. It’s a school that could probably use him, right now, in its starting lineup.

The Delta Devils lost their first 11 games to Division I opponents this season.

The Delta Devils -- and here, I thought a Delta Devil was an angry flight attendant -- scored 26 points in a loss to Washington State.

Next.

In the second round the Bruins will face the winner of Brigham Young and Texas A&M; but shouldn’t sweat either.

In BYU’s last game, the Cougars lost their conference championship game by 15 points to host Nevada Las Vegas. They are unbeaten at home but mediocre on the road.

As for the Aggies, they lost six of their last 10 games and lost twice this season to Texas -- a UCLA equal -- by an average of 22 points.

After that, it’s on to Phoenix, where the Bruins’ toughest matchup could be in the regional semifinals against Connecticut. The Huskies have strong guards and a smart coach.

But the team that beats the Bruins is going to have to beat them inside, and in its Big East tournament loss to West Virginia, Connecticut was outrebounded by 13. This season, against UCLA-equal Memphis, the Huskies were outrebounded by 20.

This would bring up Duke, whose presence in UCLA’s region is strangely the key to the relative ease of the Bruins’ path.

In most years, teams dread being in the same bracket as the Blue Devils, who have been in the Sweet 16 nine of the last 10 years.

But this season, because of Duke’s frenetic bomber style, the Bruins are lucky to get them.

Let other top-seeded teams deal with solid No. 2s such as Tennessee and Georgetown and Texas.

The Bruins could face a Duke team that, this season, when facing Pittsburgh’s UCLA-style defense, was outrebounded by 18 and shot 21% from the three-point line and lost by one at home.

In all, the Bruins’ road to San Antonio will be easier than two years ago against Gonzaga and Memphis, and last season against Pittsburgh and Kansas.

They’ve earned it. Here’s hoping they enjoy it.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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