SAN DIEGO — Before the games, hit them hard and early — with compliments.
UCLA and Tulsa tip off their NCAA Tournament on Friday night looking very comfortable, having warmed each other up all week with sufficient praise.
“They are a lot like us,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said of the Golden Hurricane on Wednesday, “where they average a lot of steals without pressing a lot.”
For the record: UCLA is the No. 4 seed, and ranked fourth in the country in steals percentage. Tulsa is the No. 13 seed, and ranks 79th.
Tulsa’s Danny Manning tried his hand at it, too. He talked up the Bruins’ rich history and immense talent, He compared their offense to Creighton’s, only the most efficient attack in college basketball.
He spoke of their assured crowd noise advantage. When the two teams last met in 1994, the Golden Hurricane pulled a first-round upset in Oklahoma City, 109 miles west of their campus. This rematch at Viejas Arena is 133 miles south of Pauley Pavilion.
But the second-year head coach really hit a stride when he talked about personnel, specifically UCLA’s 6-foot-9 point guard Kyle Anderson.
“His versatility allows him to play in anybody’s system,” Manning said. “I don’t know what position he is. To me, he’s a throwback guy. He’s just a very talented player.”
Not bad coming from a guy who was a Wooden Award winner, two-time first-team All-American and two-time NBA All-Star.
That policy extended to each other as well. Only two years apart in age, Alford and Manning were college stars in the late 1980s. According to Manning, Alford is “a great competitor.” According to Alford, Manning is “a first-class man.”
During the games, though, hit them hard and early. Period.
Both coaches talked about the need to stick to the styles they’ve known all year. It just so happens, both love to turn up the speed.
UCLA (26-8) is averaging 81.8 points per game, the program’s highest mark since 1998. It is 31st in the country in adjusted tempo, and 14th in efficiency. The Bruins have made a habit of reeling off runs, either right out of stadium intros or at least out of the halftime locker room.
“The first four minutes of every game — of each half, actually — were very important,” Anderson said. “That sets the tone right there. Coach always talks about us hitting first. That’s what we’ve got to do. It’s like boxing.”
Freshman guard Zach LaVine made the same comparison: “I feel like there’s no one out there that can beat us. If we go out there and punch them in the face ... we’ll be all right.”
On defense, UCLA talks about stopping dribble-drive penetration, getting in the gaps. The overwhelming message though, is this: Play loose, have fun. The Bruins just knocked off Arizona a week ago, seizing the Pac-12 tournament title from the Wildcats. If they can beat one of the country’s top four teams, who can scare them?
“Coach has really been on us about that: ‘Why not us?’” said junior guard Norman Powell, who will play in his hometown for the first time since graduating from Lincoln High. “We’re just as talented as anybody in the country. And we can play with anybody.”
Added Alford: “They do have a little bit more swag to them this week.”
The Golden Hurricane are just as hot coming into the postseason, having won 11 straight to end the season after losing six of seven to start it.
Still, they’re less swag than grit.
“I tell our guys, ‘We need to practice like we’re 0-4,’” Manning said. “‘We need to practice like we’re 1-6. Remember what that felt like?’”
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