ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP)—Having survived five close calls in the last two weeks, UCLA seemingly has it easy in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The top-seeded Bruins are favored by 32 points against 16th-seeded Mississippi Valley State.
History is on their side, too. No. 1 seeds are 92-0 against No. 16 seeds in the tournament.
“That’s encouraging, isn’t it?” Delta Devils coach James Green said Wednesday. “We’ve got to try to be the best No. 16 seed that’s ever played in the tournament. Even if we do that, even if each one of our players played the best game that they’ve ever played in their life, the odds are still against us.”
The Bruins (31-3) enjoyed some blowout victories early in the season, including six by 30 or more points. The biggest was a 40-point rout of Western Illinois.
In their recent run of tight games since March 2, they won four by a combined nine points and needed overtime against Stanford before winning by 10 to clinch the Pac-10 regular-season title.
Their only breather in that stretch was a 22-point victory against California in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals. UCLA is on a 10-game winning streak.
“I just hope we have another game like that,” coach Ben Howland said. “We were up by 30 and that actually afforded us to get some rest for the guys for the next game the next day. But that’s a good problem. I can’t even imagine thinking that way right now.”
Neither can his players, at least publicly. But it’s clear the Bruins are looking ahead on what they hope is the road to the school’s record 12th national championship.
“We know we have a bigger goal in mind,” said Kevin Love, featured on a regional Sports Illustrated cover this week, his second of the season.
“We might get a chance to rest for the next game, which is going to be crucial coming down the stretch. When that (a blowout) happens, we just have to keep our mind focused on what we want to accomplish.”
Love, the Pac-10 player and freshman of the year, strained his lower back in the opening minute of Saturday’s Pac-10 tourney title game against Stanford. He continues to receive treatment—ice, massage, stretching and electric stimulation—on it.
“My back is fine,” he said. “It’s not going to limit me at all. In practice yesterday, Josh (Shipp) and Russell (Westbrook), we were actually having a dunk competition.”
UCLA forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will start Thursday’s West Region opener six days after spraining his left ankle for the second time this season.
The veteran of consecutive Final Four appearances joined in the Bruins’ one-hour practice Wednesday in Westwood before the 46-mile bus ride to Anaheim.
“It still causes him some pain, to cut on it in a certain way,” Howland said. “He’ll battle through the pain and I think it helps him to play tomorrow to get ready if we’re fortunate enough to win for a Saturday matchup.”
Mbah a Moute, a strong complement to Love on the boards, missed two games last month after initially spraining the same ankle against Arizona. He was on crutches watching the Pac-10 title game Saturday against Stanford.
Mississippi Valley State (17-15) squeaked into the NCAAs for the first time since 1996, defeating Jackson State by one point to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament and extend its nine-game winning streak.
The 3,767-student school in Itta Bena, Miss., is best known as the alma mater of Jerry Rice, the NFL’s career receiving leader. Its small athletic budget means the Delta Devils have to load their schedule with games against power conferences to earn lucrative payouts.
One of those was against Washington State on Nov. 24. The Delta Devils lost 71-26 to a team that UCLA swept.
“Their size was a huge factor in us not being able to score the ball around the basket and we didn’t shoot it well from the perimeter,” Green said. “We realize that can happen to us, so we’re a little bit more guarded against that.”
Guard Stanford Speech used a football reference to explain why the Delta Devils could be the first No. 16 to topple a No. 1.
“Do you guys remember Appalachian State?” he said, referring to the Mountaineers’ stunning win at Michigan last fall. “We didn’t come out here to go to Disneyland. We came out here to play a game.”
Love knows UCLA’s mission as well.
“We got to make the people that have came before us very proud,” he said. “Mr. Alcindor, Mr. Walton, all the way back to Mr. Hazzard, they won those national championships. Coach John R. Wooden, the greatest coach in basketball history, we’re trying to make those guys proud.”