- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. Adjectives couldn't describe UCLA's basketball team Saturday, when the Bruins scalded Maryland 105-70.

Exclamations might have been better.

Like Hot. Or Ouch. Or Don't touch. Ooh, ooh. Watch it. Whoops. And hand me a potholder.

And something else couldn't describe UCLA sixth. As in, the Bruins' seed. As in, yeah right. No. 6 might be UCLA's place in this Y2K Bizzaro Bracketville, but it ain't the Bruins' place. Or rather, when UCLA cast off its underachieving image in Minneapolis, its laughably low seed ought to have gone with it.

"I'm sure [coach] Gary [Williams] over at Maryland still feels like he got hit by a freight train," Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy said yesterday. "They are the hot team. They are the hottest team in the tournament."

The Bruins' seed and temperature make them fair bets to become the first No. 6 to reach the Final Four since 1992 (Michigan), if not the first No. 6 to win it all since 1988 (Kansas). Tonight at the Palace, UCLA (21-11) plays the second-seeded, sixth-ranked Cyclones (31-4) in a Midwest Region semifinal.

"When all our players are intact, it's scary to see us play," said UCLA sophomore forward JaRon Rush, who endured a 24-game suspension. "Right now, we're in a groove."

If that groove leads to the Final Four, it would defy the tournament's recent history. Michigan's Fab Five is the only sixth-or-lower seed to reach the national semifinals since 1988; interestingly, from 1979 (the first year of seeding) to '88, 10 teams seeded sixth-or-lower reached the Final Four.

"It's interesting to look at, but to draw any type of sweeping generalization or universal truth out of anything in March Madness would probably be a mistake," UCLA coach Steve Lavin said. "What does happen is if a team has a [No.] 6 or 7 [seed], or a 10, and they're playing good basketball, they don't feel any longer that they're a 10 or a 7 or 8. That's just a subjective number you put on them."

Asked whether UCLA is now a team with a misleading "subjective number," Lavin described the maturity the Bruins have gained during their tumultuous regular season, then concluded:

"We're not as high or low as some teams have been in the past. We don't have an exaggerated opinion of ourselves. We're a kind of levelheaded, focused buzz saw, which is what you hope to have this time of year."

A levelheaded buzz saw. It was one of several graphic metaphors Lavin used, another being the "Russian Roulette" the Bruins faced when they were 13-11 and weren't even near, let alone on, the NCAA tournament bubble. Forced to win the regular season's final six games, they did just that, including a stunner at then-No. 1 Stanford.

Now, after Saturday's mauling of Maryland, the team that survived Russian Roulette looks more like a No. 1 seed than its Pac-10 rivals Arizona and Stanford ever did.

"I'm really proud of this basketball team, particularly because of the way they handled the adversity," said Lavin, who is in his third full season as UCLA coach. "It has been kind of a remarkable group."

And one that, in some ways, resembles the Kansas team of 1988. Those Jayhawks began the season No. 7, but injuries led to a midseason drop from the polls. They ultimately squeaked in, much like this UCLA team which started the season No. 12 and fell out of the rankings for good in mid-January.

Now the Bruins look unstoppable. Can Iowa State, a thin team, contain UCLA's transition offense? Can Iowa State, a short team, limit UCLA's interior tandem of Jerome Moiso and Dan Gadzuric? Can words describe the Bruins when they're on?

Hand me a potholder.

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