Kansas hopes to lose that goose egg tomorrow night in this heavyweight rumble between the two top seeds in the West Regional.
Just one more win. One more battle. One last shining moment before Kansas can advance to Atlanta for its 13th Final Four appearance in school history.
To continue their dream season, the No. 1 seed Jayhawks (33-4) must first get past the No. 2 seed Bruins (29-5). UCLA has won eight of its last 10 games and coming off victories over Weber State, Indiana, and Pittsburgh. Those three wins came after dropping two straight games to California and Washington. The Bruins have now kicked their game into high gear and will have a “homecourt” advantage on Saturday playing in their home state.
And like Southern Illinois, which KU beat 61-58 on Thursday to advance to the Elite Eight, UCLA boasts one of the best defenses in the country. The Bruins hold opponents to just 59.6 points per game and a mere 48.7 points in the tournament.
“I think this defense is just as good if not better than SIU,” said KU junior guard Russell Robinson. “I think they got a lot more talented guys. It’s going to be scary. I think we’ll be prepared and ready to play.”
“I think they got a more athletic back line than SIU had last night,” Robinson added.
The Bruins are led by 6-5 junior guard Arron Afflalo, the team’s best scorer (16.7 ppg) and defender. He led UCLA with 17 points against Pittsburgh and made all 10 free throws. Afflalo’s running mate in the backcourt is 6-0 sophomore Darren Collins, an extremely quick point guard who paces the Bruins in assists and steals, while averaging 12.7 points per game.
In the frontcourt, 6-5 Josh Shipp is a dangerous scorer and ranks second on the team at 13.2 points per game. The two post players are 6-8 junior center Lorenzo Mata (team-best 64.9 field goal percentage) and 6-7 sophomore forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (8.3 ppg and team-leading rebounder at 7.5 rpg).
While UCLA is known as a great defensive team, Self is also impressed with its offense.
“You talk about Collison, Afflalo, and Shipp on the perimeter, they’re never going to be overlooked,” Self said. “Those guys can score points, make plays, stretch the defense. Then, of course, I think Mata is a much improved offensive player. Of course, I think Mbah a Moute is one of the most skilled four men out there. He’s a lot like our four man to be honest wit h you, he can just make plays.”
Self believes KU’s win over SIU will help prepare his team for UCLA.
“I told our guys all week long, ‘You might enjoy playing this way (slow tempo), because this is the way it’s going to be,’” Self said. “We didn’t do a great job with it (versus Southern Illinois), but we did good enough. Usually in the NCAA tournament, scoring averages of teams start (going down). Possessions are more magnified. I think it was good to play that game last night to help us play Saturday’s game.”
UCLA coach Ben Howland knows his team will have to play its best to win.
“They’re a great team,” Howland said. “They’re the No. 1 seed, the hottest team in the tournament, by far the hottest team. They were killing people, they were crushing people, 17 points a game over their opponent. That is crushing.”
Howland is quite concerned over guys like Rush, Wright, and Chalmers.
“At the end of the game, if it’s coming down to last second tomorrow, I’m expecting that Brandon Rush is going to be their first choice to take a shot,” Howland said. “He’s one of the finest players in the country, an incredible athlete, along with a great skill level. When you combine athleticism with skill level, then you have truly great players. That’s what he is. He is a great player. At some point down the road, when he’s done with his career at Kansas, he’ll be an NBA player for a long time.”
Collins, for one, isn’t too worried about Kansas.
“Personally, nothing really concerns me at all, because we’ve seen everything,” he said. “We’ve seen the best perimeter player and we’ve seen one of the best post players. We can only beat ourselves, because I feel like, and we feel like we are the best team. We have to go out there and prove it.”
UCLA will have to prove it against arguably the best transition team in America. But Howland said his team can run, too.
“We played Arizona in the 80s,” he said. “I think the great thing about our team is we can play any style you want to play. You want to play a knock-down drag-it-out Washington State, go down to the last five seconds of each possession, or we can go up and down with them like Arizona. Whatever you want to do, our guys can adjust and play that way.”
But KU can lock down and guard. While all the talk in the West Regional seems to be how formidable SIU and UCLA are on defense, Kansas ranks right up there with the best. In fact, KU holds opponents to just 37.3 percent field-goal shooting, while teams shoot 42.6 percent against UCLA.
“As a coach, I would say we’re better defensively than we are offensively,” Self said. “Other people may not think that, but that’s what I would take great pride in.”
And on Saturday night, these ‘Hawks hope to play a game to remember and have the Jayhawk nation beaming with pride.
One more game. One more battle. One last shining moment before having a chance to win it all in the Georgia Dome next weekend. For Self, he’d like nothing more than to get his team to the Atlanta and also make his first Final Four appearance as head coach. He’s taken three teams to the Elite Eight (Kansas in 2004), but come up short.
“It would mean a ton to me,” he said. “If we ever got there, it would mean even more to have a chance to win it. It would mean a ton personally because we’ve been real close and haven’t got it done. I’m jealous of the guys that get there. I mean, not jealous to the point that I wished everybody lost and nobody got there. But I’m jealous to the point that I want to be in the same arena.
“But it’s not about me. It’s about our team. To have an opportunity to take a team there would just I think be an unbelievably special thing, especially when it’s something you dreamed of for a long, long time.”
That dream could become reality Saturday night.