UCLA Seeded No. 2 in NCAA West Regional

March 11, 2007

By BETH HARRIS, AP Sports Writer

Losing consecutive games for the first time this season cost UCLA a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and dropped the Bruins into a bracket that may as well be named for their coach.

Call it the Ben Howland regional.

The second-seeded Bruins (26-5) will open Thursday in Sacramento against No. 15 Weber State, Howland's alma mater.

'That's the only thing I know about Weber State,' a grinning Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said.

The West region includes Gonzaga and Pittsburgh, two schools in Howland's coaching past.

'Our focus is solely on Weber State University, formerly Weber State College,' Howland said Sunday. 'When I went to school there, it was a college.'

He played there from 1978-80, leading the Wildcats to two Big Sky championships and two NCAA tournament appearances. He was twice the team's defensive MVP.

'I've got pictures of our team when we won the Big Sky championship my senior year, beat New Mexico State in the first round (of the NCAAs) before losing to Arkansas,' Howland said.

Howland's wife, Kim, was a cheerleader at the Utah school, where Howland earned a bachelor's in physical education.

The coach's closest buddies include some of his former teammates, who attended UCLA's overtime loss to California in the Pac-10 tourney and roadtripped to Arizona to see the Bruins in February.

'They'll be there in Sacramento,' Howland said. 'My greatest memories are just lasting bonds and relationships with my former coach Neil McCarthy, as well as my teammates.'

Asked who his buddies will be rooting for, Howland replied, 'Their teammate.'

McCarthy, the former New Mexico State coach, is retired and living in the Sacramento area, so Howland plans to invite him to Thursday's game.

Just in case anyone was wondering, Howland's loyalties have changed.

'I'm excited for Weber State, but the bottom line is, I'm all about UCLA,' he said.

'I expected after our loss against Cal that we would be a 2 seed and play Weber State. Not a lot of surprises in the brackets.'

If the Bruins advance in the West, they would face a potential second-round game against 10th-seeded Gonzaga. They beat the Zags 73-71 in last year's regional semifinals after trailing until the final seconds.

Howland's got ties with Gonzaga, too.

It's where he landed his first Division I coaching gig as a graduate assistant in 1981-82. He worked with future Utah Jazz star John Stockton for one season and earned a master's degree before taking an assistant's job at UC Santa Barbara.

Things could really get interesting for the Bruins if they reach the regional semifinals in San Jose. They could play third-seeded Pittsburgh, where Howland coached four years before getting the UCLA job in 2003.

'I don't know if that's coincidence or it was purposely done,' said Arron Afflalo, who scored a season-worst three points in the Cal loss.

UCLA lost to Florida in last season's national championship game. The Bruins were ranked No. 1 for six weeks this season, longer than any other team.

But they took a hit by losing at Washington in the regular-season finale and then to Cal on Thursday.

'It would've been nice to be a No. 1 (seed), but in a sense, it's really irrelevant. We're still going to our same region, where we'll have our support system,' Afflalo said.

The team rested up Friday, then went through an extra punishing practice Saturday.

'It was real competitive and very intense,' Afflalo said. 'We pushed each other and that's the way a mature team bounces back.'

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