UCLA must go the distance in NCAA tournament


UCLA Coach Ben Howland was envious.

“I’m jealous of California,” Howland said.

Shabazz Muhammad looked on the bright side.

“At least it’s not Philadelphia,” Muhammad said.

And Larry Drew II, the one guy on the Bruins’ roster who has gone wire to wire in the NCAA tournament, was accepting.

“It’s weird, but I really don’t understand it all,” Drew said.

The Bruins will open NCAA tournament play Friday against Minnesota in Austin, Texas. UCLA, the Pac-12 regular-season champion, is the sixth-seeded team in the South Regional and will be traveling the farthest of any conference team the first weekend of the tournament.

California plays Nevada Las Vegas in San Jose.

Oregon is also in San Jose, playing Oklahoma State.

Arizona is off to Salt Lake City to play Belmont.

Colorado joins the Bruins in Austin, where the Buffaloes will play Illinois in the East Regional.

“We hoped we were going to San Jose. That was our first choice because our fans could go to the game,” Howland said. “Two other Pac-12 teams got to go to San Jose. Arizona is in Salt Lake City. Congratulations to them.”

But, he said, “it is what it is.”

The Bruins held out hope that they would be put in the West Regional and open closer to home.

“Yeah, we lost to Oregon [in the conference tournament final], but we’re regular-season Pac-12 champs,” Travis Wear said.

Of course, a year ago, being Pac-12 regular-season champion got Washington into the NIT — the Huskies didn’t win the conference tournament for an automatic bid and were passed over by the selection committee.

“If we take care of business, it doesn’t matter where we’re playing,” Muhammad said.

There are many things for the Bruins to be happy about.

For starters, the Golden Gophers (22-12) are struggling, losing 11 of their last 16 games.

The Bruins (25-9) will also get an extra day of practice, giving them more time to adjust to playing without Jordan Adams, who broke his foot in the tournament semifinals.

And there is Drew, who was a freshman on North Carolina’s national championship team.

“Once you’re in the tournament, it’s about living to play another day,” Howland said. “Larry has been through that.”

Living to play another day means beating the Gophers on the first day.

“The tournament is crazy,” said Drew, the only Bruin who has played in an NCAA tournament game. “This is everything you have been playing for. Coaches start the season by telling their teams this is the goal.”

Drew will become NCAA tournament advisor as well as point guard. As a reserve guard for the Tar Heels, he played 43 minutes in six tournament games in the 2009 tournament.

That was enough to absorb the magnitude of the moment.

“The guys have to understand the spotlight we’re in and all the hype that goes with the tournament,” Drew said. “You don’t know until you play in it.”

The Bruins are not only short on NCAA tournament experience, they are also a man down without Adams.

Norman Powell was thrust into the starting lineup and played 37 minutes against Oregon in the Pac-12 final. He did an adequate job, with 10 points and four rebounds.

But, Muhammad said, “it felt really uncomfortable. The extra time we get will help us get the rotation right.”

There’s not much to rotate. The Bruins are down to a six players, plus cameo appearances from freshman Tony Parker.

“I just had a few hours to prepare mentally for the Oregon game,” Powell said. “It was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to adjust.’ Getting this week to prepare will help me a lot.”

Minnesota has kinks to work out as well.

The Gophers burst into the season, winning 15 of 16, including victories over Memphis and Michigan State. After starting 3-0 in Big Ten play, there were issues with consistency.

Minnesota beat then-No. 1 Indiana and Wisconsin, which was runner-up in the Big Ten tournament. But there were also losses to Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska, all bottom-feeders in the Big Ten.

Still, the Gophers are strongest where the Bruins are weak. Minnesota ranked eighth nationally in rebound margin. UCLA had a rebound edge only three times in 21 games against Pac-12 opponents.

“They are big, strong and supposedly have a guy who is older than me,” Drew said.

Minnesota’s Julian Welch is a month older than the 23-year old Drew. Welch, though, is a reserve guard. It’s the big guys — including 6-foot-8, 245-pound Trevor Mbakwe — who concern Drew.

But, he said, “it’s a brand-new day. We just have to believe in ourselves and go play.”

No matter where the game is held.