SAN DIEGO — On March 18, 1994, UCLA came into the NCAA tournament with a second-place finish in the Pac-10, established players like forward Ed O’Bannon and point guard Tyus Edney and the No. 5 seed in the Midwest bracket.
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane certainly didn’t have the odds in their favor, but they did have the fans. In Oklahoma City, an unknown Tulsa team gained more than a little recognition in a 112-102 stunner. The devastated Bruins rode their anger all the way to an NCAA title the following season.
Roughly 20 years later, the environment for the Bruins’ NCAA tournament opener against the same Golden Hurricane is entirely different. A Viejas Arena crowd will likely favor a close-enough UCLA team, and the Bruins appear to be regarding the Golden Hurricane in a higher category.
It’s an oversight that the Bruins may avoid based on never having seen the blunder – sophomore guard/forward Kyle Anderson was just months old when the 1993-1994 UCLA team’s season unraveled – as well as past experience.
The Bruins have overlooked several opponents this year, most recently as the main attraction in Washington State’s senior night two weeks ago. They looked confident before midweek games on the road, only to consistently sport looks of sore disappointment in the days following. With zero room for error from Friday on out, UCLA is presenting it as a lesson learned.
“Obviously a majority of the team wasn’t even around (in 1994) so I would think (Tulsa has UCLA’s full attention),” said coach Steve Alford. “We have respected everybody and teams that you don’t all of the sudden have a respect for, you know, I think that’s – that’s one of the worst things you can do as a player. When teams get upset and it’s about looking past somebody it’s just hard.“
The strategy for UCLA has been not to look past, but into Tulsa to find traits resembling common Pac-12 opponents.
“They somewhat play like Oregon,” said freshman guard Zach LaVine. “A lot of guards, real quick, they can score. Not the biggest team, but scrappy and athletic. It’s going to be a tough game, we just have to go out there, punch them in the face and win this game.”
UCLA will particularly look to soften the blow of 6-foot-3 Tulsa guard James Woodard. The sophomore is the Golden Hurricane’s leading scorer with 15.7 points per game and scored a team-high 27 points in Tulsa’s 69-60 win over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA tournament final.
“They’ve won 11 straight games,” Anderson said. “That’s tough to do. They’re a very good team. We’re not underestimating them or anything like that. That’s not fair. We’re just looking to go play our game. “
Diving into the tournament
In a Saturday Pac-12 tournament final filled with memorable highlights, redshirt senior forward Travis Wear’s dive for a loose ball to give UCLA possession with 2:29 remaining may be projected above all the others.
While his coach said the play will be remembered in Pac-12 tournament history, Wear now sees it as nothing more than hustle.
“I watched it a couple times,” he said.
As he and brother David Wear now enter their final stretch of collegiate games, there’s little time for nostalgia.
“I’m just happy to be here, honestly,” Travis Wear said. “I’m just focusing on the games we have to play, I’m not really worried about whether it’s my last time.”
Trials and error
While Alford and Tulsa coach Danny Manning will compete for a spot in the round of 32 Friday, the two once both vied for spots on the 1984 United States men’s basketball Olympic team.
The tryout in Bloomington, Ind. was a breakthrough for Alford, fresh off his freshman season at Indiana. UCLA’s coach made the squad and went on to win a gold medal under coach Bobby Knight. Though Manning would go on to be a No. 1 overall draft pick and have a 15-year career in the NBA, his tryout didn’t go as well.
“I got cut from that team,” the former Kansas star said. “I wasn’t good enough. But the trials were fun.”
Though former and current competitors, Alford said their relationship is one of mutual respect.
“Tulsa is a good basketball school with a lot of tradition and it’s not surprising they went after Danny,” Alford said.