Bruins must go long way to get back to where they have been

The way Josh Shipp sees it, he and his UCLA teammates pretty much got what they deserved after a few too many losses this season.

"We didn't take care of business," Shipp said. "So we expected to get sent off."

Sent off down a rocky NCAA tournament road, all the way to Philadelphia, where the sixth-seeded Bruins will face a potentially dangerous 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the East Regional on Thursday night.

The next round -- if they reach there -- could bring a showdown with the home team, third-seeded Villanova, which played a handful of games at Wachovia Center this winter.

It's not exactly a road map for success, not for a team accustomed to a No. 1 or 2 seeding and a clear path to the last three Final Fours.

"We haven't been the underdog in the last few years," Coach Ben Howland said. "We know we're going to have to play very well to get out of Philadelphia and move on to the next set of rounds."

On Sunday afternoon, the Bruins gathered in a conference room at UCLA's athletic department, watching the tournament pairings announced on a big screen. Some of the players were surprised that Friday's loss to USC in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament caused them to slip so far.

"We got a tough draw," forward James Keefe said.

They had been hoping for something around a four or five seeding, maybe a ticket to Portland, Ore., or Boise, Idaho, for the first two rounds.

Howland knew better.

Shortly before the 3 p.m. announcement, he got a call from a former player -- someone who now works at CBS -- tipping him off about the Bruins' fate.

The coach went directly to Doug Erickson, his director of basketball administration who handles video, and learned that UCLA had 16 hours of film on VCU from this season. Howland then walked downstairs to join his team, watching the telecast in which CBS analyst Seth Davis predicted the Rams will upset UCLA.

"Yeah," Howland said, "good for Seth."

His players heard Davis' comment but said they didn't care. They also didn't know much about their opponent -- some were not entirely sure what VCU stood for -- but this is a game that could be treacherous.

Much like UCLA, the 11th-seeded Rams pride themselves on shutting down opponents. Under Coach Anthony Grant, they play a "94 feet both ways" style that emphasizes pressure defense along with plenty of running the court.

There also might be some intriguing matchups. UCLA has senior point guard Darren Collison, an All-Pac-10 player. VCU answers with guard Eric Maynor, whose aggressiveness and court vision earned him player-of-the-year honors in the Colonial Athletic Assn.

Both have capable big men, as well. Bruins senior Alfred Aboya, named to the Pac-10's all-defensive team, will square off against counterpart Larry Sanders, a shot blocker and the CAA's defensive player of the year.

On Sunday night, the Rams' coach struck a predictably respectful tone when talking about the game.

"Obviously UCLA's a great program and has a tremendous history," Grant said in a prepared statement. "We have tremendous respect for what they've been able to accomplish."

But anyone expecting his team to be intimidated doesn't know recent history. The Rams defeated Duke in the first round two years ago, with Maynor sinking a jump shot in the last two seconds.

"They're a team that really is a high-octane, run up and down, press you," Howland said.

Which means Collison needs to recover in a hurry from a sore tailbone that dates to the fall he took against Oregon in the regular-season finale. Lingering pain hampered him against USC last week, though Sunday he said: "I feel a lot better."

He and his teammates have added worries.

There was talk about leaving after a morning practice Tuesday, the long flight across several time zones, jet lag and its effect on biorhythms.

With a sour economy, the Bruins weren't expecting that too many fans could follow them to Philadelphia and make the Wachovia Center seem more like home.

And -- although the players insisted they weren't looking past VCU -- there was the specter of Villanova lingering ahead, Duke and Texas in the same half of the draw.

"The last three years we've been spoiled hanging in the West," Collison said. "Now they want to see how we do in the East."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

UCLA (25-8) vs.

Virginia Commonwealth (24-9)

How they got here: UCLA -- The 15th-ranked Bruins earned an at-large berth by finishing second in the Pacific 10 Conference regular-season standings. Virginia Commonwealth -- Earned its third berth in the last six years after defeating George Mason, 71-50, in the championship game of the Colonial Athletic Assn. tournament.

Common opponents: None.

Matchup inside: Neither team has dominant big men when it comes to offense or rebounding -- the Bruins lost that when Kevin Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute left for the NBA last year. Center Alfred Aboya and forward Nikola Dragovic have tried to compensate with hustle and, in Dragovic's case, a reasonably accurate shot from three-point range. VCU answers with Larry Sanders, a sophomore who stands 6-10 but runs the floor well and blocks shots like a taller man with his 91-inch wingspan.

Matchup outside: Senior point guard Darren Collison made the All-Pac-10 team by running the UCLA offense and keying the defense with constant pressure tactics. Swingman Josh Shipp has emerged as the team's biggest offensive threat in the last month. VCU likes to go small and fast -- four of the Rams' top five scorers are guards, led by conference player of the year, Eric Maynor, who averages 22.4 points and has added range to his jump shot this season. Both of these teams will look for easy baskets in transition when they get the chance to run off turnovers or defensive stops.

Stat factor: Under Coach Ben Howland, UCLA focuses on defense but has struggled at times this season, allowing opponents to shoot better than 44%. Granted, VCU has played a less-imposing schedule, but the Rams have been successful with their aggressive, pressing style, ranking among the nation's top 30 in field-goal percentage defense by limiting opposing teams to slightly less than 40%. When it comes to forcing turnovers, UCLA holds a 527-482 edge.

-- David Wharton

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No. 6 UCLA

vs. No. 11 VCU

East Regional

Thu., about 7 PDT

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