UCLA hopes the comeback trail begins in Madison Square Garden

The basketball team formerly known as UCLA has been anything but a juggernaut in the 20 months since it last played Villanova.

There was a losing season, for starters. Defeats by 27 and 29 points. A March that didn't include the NCAA tournament.

So when the Bruins play seventh-ranked Villanova on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden in a semifinal of the NIT Season Tip-Off, they will have more to gain than a trip to the championship of an early-season tournament.

A victory over the Wildcats (4-0) would do for UCLA what triumphs over Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine and Pacific could not: herald the return of a heavyweight program that has been mostly a punching bag since its 89-69 loss to Villanova in the second round of the 2009 NCAA tournament.

"If we do have a good game, a good win," Bruins sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said, "it's going to say a lot for us."

These teams last met at Philadelphia's Wachovia Center, only a short drive from the Villanova campus. And as far as the Bruins are concerned, playing in Madison Square Garden qualifies as another home game for the Wildcats.

"We don't have a lot of people who are going to fly 3,000 miles to come support us," sophomore forward Reeves Nelson said.

The Bruins have bigger worries than the crowd. Start with Villanova's backcourt of senior Corey Fisher and sophomore Maalik Wayns, one of the fastest guard tandems in the country. Fisher, who averages a team-high 16.5 points per game, was on the preseason list of candidates for the John Wooden Award.

The Wildcats can also go big, using a lineup with 6-foot-5 guard Corey Stokes as the smallest player on the court and 6-10 forward-center Mouphatou Yarou as the biggest.

Villanova's size and quickness allow it to play a physical, aggressive style of defense that held Lafayette to 25.4% shooting during a 45-point victory Saturday.

"Now, all of a sudden, we're stepping up into a whole different level," Coach Ben Howland said of facing the Wildcats.

Howland hopes to have more Bruins at his disposal after injuries limited UCLA to only eight scholarship players last week against Pacific. But even if junior guard Malcolm Lee returns from a sprained left ankle that has sidelined him since early in the Pepperdine game, Howland cautioned that Lee probably wouldn't be close to 100%.

At least the environs won't be totally unfamiliar to the Bruins. Howland won a Big East Conference tournament title in Madison Square Garden in his final season at Pittsburgh, and junior guard Lazeric Jones' high school team played in the hallowed arena.

Of course, Jones didn't get off the bench in that game, and his team lost. So he is eager to make a difference Wednesday, for himself and for a team in need of a signature victory.

"It can really be a statement game," Jones said, "and it can really be a test for us to show us where we are in the season and where we can be."


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