One program has won 11 national titles and the other hasn’t been to a Final Four, but hardly anybody figures the first team, which is UCLA, will win.
HOUSTON — In the UCLA locker room here Thursday, Tony Parker looked at my press credential, fingered it and said dolefully, “They shoulda ran the ball. Man, why not run the ball? Broke my heart.”
We know, Tony, we know.
Fifteen hundred miles from the VMAC and seven weeks later, fans are still bagging on Seahawk play-calling, even people whose minds are supposed to be on Friday night’s Sweet 16 pairing of the Chosen Ones, UCLA and Gonzaga.
FRIDAY Gonzaga vs. UCLA @ Houston, 4:15 p.m., Ch. 7
The Bruins seem blessed merely for making the NCAA tournament, and then getting the mother of all goaltending calls to beat SMU.
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The Zags appear gilded because, well, they’re matched against the Bruins.
Everything about this game is a little unusual, from the fact they’re playing it in a building the size of Vashon Island — NRG Stadium, formerly Reliant Stadium — to the woman quizzing Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer using a cellphone encased in pink with rabbit ears protruding.
“First time I’ve ever been interviewed by a little pink bunny,” said Wiltjer cheerfully.
As for the game, one program has won 11 national titles and the other hasn’t been to a Final Four, and hardly anybody figures the first team, which is UCLA (22-13), will win.
Part of that is because they played nearly four months ago at UCLA, and Gonzaga won comfortably, 87-74, but neither team is attaching much importance to it. Wiltjer scoffed at the notion UCLA could appropriate some sort of psychological edge from that.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re at the point in the season where we’re playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
It was the Zags (34-2) who, back on Dec. 13, started the Bruins toward a hellish holiday season.
That gashed open a five-game losing streak, lowlight of which was a monstrous loss at Kentucky in which the Bruins trailed 41-7 at half.
“He said, ‘You set a record,’ ” said Bruins guard Isaac Hamilton, referring to part of coach Steve Alford’s halftime speech.
Yes, the Bruins went on to make the tournament. And yes, there was considerable hoo-ha, inasmuch as, since Thanksgiving weekend they beat only two NCAA-bound teams, Utah and Oregon.
This was the Alford plea Thursday: “There’s been a lot made of that. I wish there was more made of what our young men have been able to do and grow up and mature and become the team they are. We weren’t one of the last four in the tournament.”
How that happened, in most eyes, is a feat rivaling John Wooden’s 10 NCAA championships in 12 years at UCLA.
This much is true, though: The trading-places-with-history routine of the Bruins and Zags has something to do with UCLA’s upper-crust status. Last year, UCLA lost Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine early to the NBA, which left the Bruins shy of Bruin-worthy talent for 2014-15.
“We had three go hardship, and five of the eight guys in our rotation last year are in the NBA right now,” Alford pointed out.
Hardship — there’s a word that fits all the incongruity in the run-up to this game.
As for the arena, Zags coach Mark Few expressed concern. Here he’s got a team that led the surviving NCAA 16 in tournament points at 86.5 a game, and suddenly his guys might have to adjust their crosshairs.
Maybe Few watched the 2011 championship game, the one where in this same building, Butler endangered rims by shooting 18.8 percent against Connecticut.
That’s not a misprint.
At least they’ve hung black curtains about 50 yards behind each basket stanchion. That hardly makes it feel like the Palestra, but might help goose shooting percentages.
The Zag players seemed to take a “Hoosiers” attitude about it. Said Kevin Pangos: “I don’t really think of that. I guess possibly. But the rim’s the same height.”
Added Wiltjer, “If you’re a shooter, you’re a shooter.”
For the final word, back to Parker, UCLA’s 6-foot-9, 260-pound center.
“I mean, it’s a football stadium,” Parker said. “I get to play on the field that J.J. Watt had some touchdowns on. It’s pretty cool.”
And on another field, yeah, they shoulda run the damn ball.
|Gritty and gutty Bruins?|
|UCLA will be an underdog in the Sweet 16 game Friday against Gonzaga, which is trying to reach the Elite Eight for the second time in program history. How the two programs stack up historically:|
|18||Final Four appearances||0|
|22||Elite Eight appearances||1|
|33||Sweet 16 appearances||6|
|Wooden||Icon named John||Stockton|