Published March 14, 2011
LOS ANGELES – UCLA is back in the NCAA tournament after sitting out last year, giving the Bruins a chance to erase the bad memories created by their early exit from the Pac-10 tournament.
The Bruins lost to Oregon 76-59 on Thursday night, allowing them time to reflect before learning their NCAA destiny on Sunday.
The Bruins (22-10) are seeded seventh in the Southeast Region, and will open Thursday against 10th-seeded Michigan State in Tampa, Fla.
"It's cool. We're in," freshman big man Joshua Smith said. "We kind of knew we were going to get a seeding like that. Our season was pretty good and no really bad losses."
Except for getting trounced by the Ducks, whom the Bruins swept in the regular season. Coach Ben Howland called his team's performance its worst of the season.
"If we had played better, we could have gotten a better seed in the West," Smith said. "That was a bad way to end our tournament. Right now we're hungry."
Howland had the team watch film of the Oregon loss for 2½ hours.
"Every time we saw something wrong, we were going back over it," said Tyler Honeycutt, who was diagnosed with strep throat on Friday. "Just losing was a wake-up call."
It carried over to weekend practice, which was livelier than usual.
"The intensity was a lot harder," said Malcolm Lee, whose injured knee is feeling better.
The only UCLA players with NCAA tourney experience are juniors Lee and Jerime Anderson. They both played sparingly in 2009, beating Virginia Commonwealth in the opener and losing to Villanova in the second round. Neither scored, with each playing fewer than 19 minutes combined in the two games.
The Spartans, meanwhile, reached the Final Four last season, with most of its team still intact.
"Those guys have been there, done that, won in the tournament, and that's definitely an advantage for them," Howland said.
UCLA is three years removed from its run of three consecutive Final Four appearances, having endured several departures to the NBA since then.
Last March, Howland was on the recruiting trail while the NCAA tournament was going on.
"We expected to get back in the tournament," he said.
The senior-less Bruins finished second in the Pac-10, while the Spartans (19-14) ended in a four-way tie for fourth in the Big Ten.
"We know they're a good team. They've got experience," Honeycutt said.
UCLA's victories included wins over BYU, St. John's, and Arizona, one of the four Pac-10 teams that got into the NCAA tournament. The Bruins lost at Kansas by one point; the Jayhawks are the top seed in the Southwest Region. They went 7-3 in their past 10 games.
The Spartans beat Washington of the Pac-10 and Wisconsin, while their losses included games against Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse and Texas. They were 6-4 in their past 10.
"Michigan State is a better team than a 10 seed," Lee said. "They got a lot of talent. We can't take them lightly. We can't take any teams for granted."
If they win Thursday, the Bruins would face either Florida or UC Santa Barbara.