Different roads to a dream NCAA TOURNAMENT

April 01, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

SEATTLE -- They are a study in contrasts: not only athletically and philosophically, but geographically and historically. Yet there one obvious similarity between UCLA and Oklahoma State.

They are at the Final Four, in contention for a national championship. That will change tonight, as their differences are played out in the first NCAA tournament semifinal game at the Kingdome.

It's the fast-breaking Bruins from trendy Westwood and the ground-you-into-the-floor Cowboys from backwater Stillwater. It's the "Little General" against "Big Country." It's the '90s against the '50s, and we're not talking just points.

It's perhaps the biggest contrast in style between two teams in a Final Four game since Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma was heavily favored to beat North Carolina State for the title in Albuquerque, N.M., 12 years ago. And we all remember who won that game.

"I think you've had a few national champions that play pretty much the way we play," Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton said yesterday. "I think if you talk to them, he [UCLA coach Jim Harrick] will tell you our philosophy is no different than his. We like to run the basketball, but if somebody runs the ball better than we do, we hope we can adjust and make them play our style of game."

Not that UCLA (29-2), which emerged virtually unscathed from last week's track meet at the West Regional in Oakland, Calif., is taking Oklahoma State (27-9) lightly. The Bruins are favored, but the four-point spread is a tribute to what the fourth-seeded Cowboys did to top seed Wake Forest and No. 2 seed Massachusetts at the East Regional in East Rutherford, N.J.

"They were third in the Big Eight in scoring, so they don't play really slow," said Harrick, who has coached UCLA to its first Final Four in 15 years. "They play medium. I think to be a good basketball team, you have got to play fast, you have got to play medium, you have got to play all styles."

Athletically, there is no way that Oklahoma State can touch the Bruins, a team that Cowboys senior guard Randy Rutherford called "the best running team in the country." UCLA doesn't have just one little havoc-wreaking point guard, in Tyus "Little General" Edney, but a second in Cameron Dollar. The two most physically gifted Bruins might not be Edney and senior All-American Ed O'Bannon, but freshmen reserves Toby Bailey and J. R. Henderson.

Historically, there is no college program that can touch what UCLA has done. As Oklahoma A&M, Oklahoma State won back-to-back national championships in 1945 and '46 under the legendary Henry Iba. UCLA won 10 titles in 12 years, including seven straight from 1967 to 1973. The Bruins' last title came in 1975 -- its last under the even more legendary John Wooden.

And geographically, the contrast is more startling. Stillwater has rodeos, not Rodeo Drive.

"A lot of people aren't picking us because where we're from and the way we play, but we're used to it," said senior forward Scott Pierce, who likely will be matched up against O'Bannon. "I think it just makes us play harder."

Said O'Bannon: "I think we were very aware of Oklahoma State throughout the whole year. They had a lot of games on television, especially them being on [ESPN's] 'Big Monday' and everything. They pose a lot of problems for us, with the consistency of the big fella [Bryant Reeves] and Rutherford on the outside. We're going to try to do what got us to the point where we are at now: play team ball and consistent defense."

The Bruins will have to make as many adjustments to Oklahoma State as the Cowboys will have to make to UCLA -- especially in defending "Big Country" Reeves. In his matchups during the tournament against quicker, more athletic centers, the 7-foot, 292-pound senior has dominated Alabama's Antonio McDyess, Wake Forest's Tim Duncan and Massachusetts' Marcus Camby.

"I think Joe Smith is great, a little skinny, but this guy [Reeves] is a man and he is a great talent," said Harrick, who will counter Reeves with 7-foot, 250-pound George Zidek. "So between he and Rutherford, I think the people will realize they have a great athletic team and they play great defense. They are very well-coached and they wouldn't be here if you hadn't played great basketball."

Since the NCAA tournament began seeding its teams in 1979, there have been five seeded fifth or lower that have made it through to the championship game. Three -- North Carolina State, a sixth seed, in 1983; Villanova, an eighth seed, in 1985; and Kansas, a sixth seed in 1988 -- have won the title. Oklahoma State thinks it has a good chance to beat the odds, not to mention the Bruins.

"The way we feel about the whole situation is we have confidence in ourselves," said Rutherford. "We're here to win the Final Four, but we don't feel like we're the underdog. Our point is to win the whole thing. At this stage of the season, there are no Cinderellas left."

But one big dance.

Whether it's a fast one or a slow one will determine which team is left dancing come Monday night.

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