March 20, 2009
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Villanova's tough, physical approach suits UCLA just fine.
The Bruins (26-8) won't be afraid to mix it up with the third-seeded Wildcats (27-7) in the second round of the East Regional on Saturday.
This matchup doesn't figure to be a high-scoring affair. Both teams play strong defense and neither cares about style points.
"We're at the point in the season where it doesn't matter how you can win if you get a win," UCLA's Josh Shipp said Friday. "If it's an ugly game and we win, we're fine with that."
Just because Villanova comes from the gritty Big East Conference doesn't automatically make the Wildcats tougher than their glitzy Pac-10 opponent. UCLA coach Ben Howland coached in the Big East for four seasons at Pittsburgh, so he took that defense-first mentality to Westwood.
That's one reason why the Bruins have reached the Final Four three straight years. They're willing to get down and dirty and do whatever it takes to win games.
"Just winning ugly," point guard Darren Collison said. "Coach Howland, he's a coach from the Big East. It kind of tends to rub off on us. No matter how you win, everybody is going to talk about the results. We understand they like to play ugly. But we won some games playing ugly as well."
If you scratch the names off those true blue and gold jerseys and just watch the Bruins play, you might confuse them with Connecticut, Pitt or another one of those Big East bruisers.
"There's a respect for the toughness that it takes to be a Big East basketball player that we take a lot of pride in," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "UCLA, to me, is a Big East team. Ben coached in our league and plays that way, very physical. Not just physical, but mentally tough. Ben is mentally tough. His team is mentally tough."
Howland had better defensive teams the last three years when he nearly guided UCLA to its 12th national championship. The Bruins allowed opponents to shoot 44.4 percent from the floor this season, including 36.3 percent from 3-point range.
"We've been bigger and probably more physical the last couple years," Howland said. "We're not as big up front. But the Big East mentality of playing defense first, that's what wins for you. If we can do a good job defensively, it gives us a chance against Villanova. If we don't play defense, it's going to be a long day."
Fittingly, this game is in Philadelphia. It's a blue-collar city with hard-nosed fans who love to root for the underdog - except in this case. Villanova has a real home-court advantage. The Wildcats play some of their regular-season home games at the Wachovia Center, a short distance from their suburban campus.
The hometown crowd was a factor Thursday night when Villanova rallied from a 14-point, second-half hole against American. There were sections of fans from UCLA and Virginia Commonwealth pulling for the 14th-seeded Eagles, but the Wildcats' faithful drowned them out.
"The fans always supported us all year whether it's in the Pavilion or wherever we play at," 'Cats forward Dwayne Anderson said. "They always come out. They're always loud, very into the game for the entire game. So it definitely helped us, I think, at the end."
Wright tried downplaying the geographical edge, though there's no place else he'd want to be.
"I'd rather play here than play in California. There's no doubt in my mind. I'm glad we're here," Wright said. "But I think all of us would tell you, when that game starts, no one cares where you're playing. It's just like during the season. When you're playing on the road, whether you're playing, once the game starts, it doesn't matter. It's 94 by 50 feet. That's the way we'll look at it when the game starts. But around the game, there are advantages to being home."
Howland isn't buying it.
"They may not know where they're playing, but they know that most of the building is rooting for them," Howland said. "There's no question it's an advantage for them to be playing at home in a building they're familiar with, with most of the people who are going to be in the seats rooting for them. We understand this is the only true road game in the NCAA tournament. We're going to play like it's a road game. At times, we've been a very good road team not only this year, but the last few years."
While Villanova survived a first-game scare, UCLA didn't secure a victory until VCU's Eric Maynor missed a 17-footer at the buzzer. It was Collison who forced Maynor into missing that shot by ferociously guarding him in the final seconds. The Bruins will need more of that tight defense to reach the final 16.