PHILADELPHIA (AP)—All those national championships and that storied tradition doesn’t make UCLA a safe bet for upset-minded prognosticators.
Even President Barack Obama picked Virginia Commonwealth University to beat the Bruins in his bracket.
When sixth-seeded UCLA (25-8) meets 11th-seeded VCU (24-9) in the opening round of the East Regional on Thursday, history won’t matter much. Perhaps that’s why so many people think the Rams will pull off an early upset in the NCAA tournament.
“It doesn’t really matter what people think of us,” Bruins forward Josh Shipp said Wednesday. “We believe in each other. We know what we each are capable of, what this team is capable of. For the outsiders, they don’t believe. That’s good for them. But for us, we know.”
VCU players were aware they were the President’s choice in this matchup. They don’t want to let Obama down.
“I saw he picked us. That was pretty neat to watch,” Rams forward Larry Sanders said. “It’s fun when you’re in the mix. But I think our focus is on UCLA right now, those 40 minutes between those two lines. You can’t get wrapped up in it. But it’s nice to enjoy it.”
Comparing the two schools easily suggests a mismatch. The numbers are staggering. UCLA leads the country with 11 national titles and 18 Final Four appearances, including the last three years. VCU has just five tourney wins in only eight trips, and has never made it past the second round.
John Wooden, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor and Reggie Miller are just a few of the names linked to the prestigious program in Westwood. VCU, well, it had Gerald Henderson in the late 1970s.
“When you think about UCLA and the NCAA tournament, you just know they’ve had their history,” VCU point guard Eric Maynor said. “You know, national titles, Final Four runs. We know the last three years they’ve been in the Final Four. So we know a little bit about them. Everybody knows about UCLA when it comes to NCAA basketball.”
Stung by the selection committee’s snub last year, VCU made sure it secured a trip to the Big Dance by winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The Rams are back on the stage where Maynor starred two years ago and in the same spot, too. VCU was the No. 11 seed when Maynor nailed a 15-foot jumper in the final seconds to eliminate Duke in the first round in 2007.
Maynor, who led the team in scoring at 22.4 points per game, has a big man to help this time. The 6-foot-10 Sanders is a disruptive inside force. He averaged 11.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.
“He’s very skilled for a kid,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “He’ll be a future NBA player down the road.”
UCLA opened the season No. 4 in The Associated Press top 25 poll and stayed ranked all year, running its streak to 74 straight weeks. The Bruins were 15th in the latest poll, but suffered through their worst shooting performance of the season in a 65-55 loss to Southern California in the Pac-10 tournament semifinals. UCLA shot a season-low 27 percent (19-of-70) from the field and probably cost itself a chance to stay closer to home by not earning a higher seed.
The Bruins were seeded No. 1 last year and No. 2 the previous two seasons en route to the Final Four. UCLA hasn’t been this low since losing to Texas A&M as the 11th seed in 2005.
“We just won a lot of games throughout the past three years,” point guard Darren Collison said. “Being we’re a six seed doesn’t really matter to us, because we know what we’re capable of as a team. We have a lot of veteran guys that have been to the Final Four three straight times. Even though this year we’re not expected to make it again, it just makes it that much more challenging and fun to us.
“We like to play as a team, but we’re also competitors. We like to compete and go against the grain. So if everybody is saying it’s going to be an upset, that’s fine. That’s something we’re going to use as motivation.”
There doesn’t figure to be too many people in the stands wearing blue and gold and rooting for UCLA at the Wachovia Center. The cross country trip scared off plenty of Bruins fans in these tough economic times. At least the start time will favor UCLA. The game should tip off around 10 p.m. EDT, a typical start for a West Coast team. That means players don’t have to adjust their body clocks.
“I think any team would be honest and tell you that the closer to home is always better overall,” Howland said. “We will be the team with the least amount of fans coming from the home area. But we are where we are and we’re excited to be here.”