UCLA's Meeting With Kansas Is Years In The Making
Trip to the Final Four going to Saturday's winner
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March 23, 2007
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - Arron Afflalo knows athletes are never supposed to look beyond their next postseason game. On Selection Sunday, he did it anyway.
When the West Regional brackets came out, he immediately noticed his Bruins' path back to the NCAA title game went through Kansas. The Jayhawks were the top seed, perhaps the nation's best team entering the NCAA tournament - and the team Afflalo had watched warily on television since Thanksgiving weekend, when the Jayhawks beat defending national champion Florida.
Nearly two weeks later, the top-seeded Jayhawks (33-4) and the second-seeded Bruins (29-5) have earned that date, with a trip to the Final Four going to Saturday's winner.
"We tried not to look ahead, but we all knew there was a good chance we would play Kansas," said Afflalo, the Pac-10's player of the year. "We've been ready for that for a long time now. That's how you want to do go, though. You want to go against the best in the sport, and that's our opportunity now."
Both teams went through light workouts Friday before one of the most tantalizing matchups of the college basketball season, pitting two tradition-rich programs in a compelling clash of coaching styles and playing philosophies.
But they have a common respect for the history that can weigh on any player in both uniforms. They're standing in the shadows of giants that include Wilt Chamberlain and Lew Alcindor; Danny Manning and Reggie Miller; coach Larry Brown and, well, coach Larry Brown.
"No matter how well we do at Kansas, we're never going to do more than the people who came before us, and UCLA feels the same way," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. "These guys are all great players, but they're not going to be Wilt or Danny. We're caretakers of something we take great pride in for the period of time we're here on campus."
Yet this meeting could be something significant in both schools' histories. The game pits teams who prefer distinctly different styles - Kansas' uptempo offense against UCLA's hard-nosed defense - but have no problem changing to fit the situation.
Kansas essentially couldn't run against Southern Illinois' defensive virtuosity Thursday night, but still scrapped its way to a 61-58 victory. UCLA thrives in coach Ben Howland's slower, punchier scheme, yet still believes it has enough athletes to run past any squad in its way, including the Pac-10's speediest teams.
The teams had something else in common: They exuded confidence Friday - confidence in their skills, their adaptability and their plans for next weekend in Atlanta.
"We can only beat ourselves," UCLA guard Darren Collison said. "That's the way we feel. We feel like we're the best team here."
But if the Bruins attempt to match Kansas' fast-breaking speed, "I think that would be a bad idea," said Kansas guard Russell Robinson, whose matchup with Collison could determine the game's tempo and result.
"We've got enough guys to be able to play defense, and still get out and run. I want it to go up and down. I think it would be a good game, and a better game for (Kansas)."
The Jayhawks have won 14 straight games, while UCLA has rallied from consecutive losses with three straight tournament victories. Kansas' dominance wasn't lost on Howland, who became a semi-regular television viewer of Jayhawks games during sleepless nights in Westwood.
"They're a great team," said Howland, the first UCLA coach to lead the school to back-to-back regional finals since John Wooden. "They're the No. 1 seed, the hottest team in the tournament by far. They were killing people. They were crushing people."
The Bruins have an edge in NCAA tournament experience after last season's run to the national championship game, but Kansas has played as many high-profile games this season as anybody.
And though the Jayhawks will be wearing their home whites, the California crowd should be slanted toward UCLA.
"I don't think it's fair," said Kansas' Brandon Rush, whose brother, Jaron, played two seasons at UCLA. "This is going to be like another away game, so we're going to have our backs against the wall. We're going to have to fight and use our talents."
Kansas is deep into its winningest season since reaching the Final Four in 2002. The Jayhawks lost regional finals in 2003 and 2004 before their embarrassing first-round upsets in the last two tournaments.
Self has lost three regional finals in the previous seven tournaments - one each while coaching at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas. While Howland seemed agitated as he repeatedly complained about the ambient noise in UCLA's news conference at the San Jose Sharks' hockey rink, Self seemed relaxed and refreshed by the prospect of his fourth shot at the Final Four.
"I didn't know we never beat them in the tournament," said Self, whose Jayhawks are 0-4 against UCLA in the NCAA tournament. "We're overdue. ... We might as well not hide the fact it's a big game (from the players). It's the reason kids go to UCLA. It's the reason kids come to Kansas - to play in this game. So enjoy it."