Tigers, Bruins adjusting to Final Four grind


INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Baby blue is their color. Black and blue is their attitude.

At some point early in coach Ben Howland’s tenure on the Left Coast, the UCLA Bruins woke up and realized they looked more like bruisers than a bunch of SoCal softies.

Their opponent in Saturday’s national semifinal, LSU, takes much the same approach to basketball – preaching defense first, then letting the rest take care of itself.

“LSU has guys underneath to make up for so many mistakes on the perimeter,” said Duke’s J.J. Redick, who was stopped cold by the Tigers last week in the Atlanta Regional. “UCLA has great defense, too. You look at it and see that game could end up in the high 30s or low 40s if the shots aren’t falling.”

Yes, it could be ugly, although ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.

Howland, who patterned himself after Rick Majerus, among others, and perfected his style of defense in the Big East at Pitt, said reformulating John Wooden’s high-scoring glamour program into an ungraceful bunch of grinders wasn’t as tough a sell as it might have seemed.

“Great players compete at both ends of the floor,” Howland said. “When you start really thinking about it, really being rational about it, it’s not a hard sell because all players want to be great.”

The winner between UCLA (31-6) and LSU (27-8) will play the winner of the early Florida-George Mason semifinal for the championship on Monday. LSU is seeking its first title. UCLA is going for No. 12.

While both the Bruins and Tigers made their mark on defense this season, the way they go about it is different.

The Bruins rely on guards Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar to take things away on the perimeter. Often, that recipe works – perimeter guys shutting down other perimeter guys, making teams one-dimensional. The formula will be tested because LSU wants nothing more than to work the ball down low to the big fella – 6-foot-9 center Glen “Big Baby” Davis.

UCLA shut down Cal’s 6-8 center, Leon Powe, in the second half a few weeks ago in the Pac-10 tournament. But Howland isn’t fooled.

“The difference between him and Big Baby is that Big Baby is 310 pounds, 6-9, unbelievably wide and athletic,” Howland said of the sophomore. “Leon is only 240, 245.”

Over the last 10 games, only one team has cracked the 60-point mark against UCLA. That team, Gonzaga, lost 73-71 in the regional semifinals after being held scoreless for the last 3:26.

The regional final was a 50-45 slogfest against Memphis.

Then again, little on either end of the court in the Bruins’ last two games has been pretty. They’ve needed every bit of good defense they can muster. The offense has been that bad. Three-pointers won’t fall (8-for-29). But neither have shots from right under the basket – batting the ball back and forth, five, sometimes six times. Overall, they’re 37-for-97 from the floor, 41-for-69 from the line over the last two games.

Still, they keep winning.

“It wasn’t ugly to me,” backup guard DeAndre Robinson said of the Memphis game. “It was a beautiful win. A win is a win if it’s ugly or not. We played good basketball.”

LSU is playing well, too.

As well as Davis clogs up the middle, it’s the effectiveness of 6-9 forward Tyrus Thomas, the Southeastern Conference’s co-defensive player of the year, that makes that defense tick. Thomas is a human eraser, nullifying mistakes on the perimeter, blocking 96 shots this season – a total bettered only by Shaquille O’Neal in program history – and altering dozens more he doesn’t get a hand on.

Teams shoot 39.8 percent against LSU this season.

“When you have a player like Tyrus Thomas to roam around a basket and protect some defensive errors that you may make in the perimeter, it allows you to do some things that other teams may not be able to do,” coach John Brady said.

Against Duke in the regional semifinal, LSU made it a point of stopping Redick, who took 18 of the Blue Devils’ shots. Sure, some other guys scored, especially Shelden Williams, but Redick only made three of his attempts. And over the final 20 minutes of LSU’s 62-54 win, he only made one field goal.

“The last eight, nine minutes, the scorers they need to score in critical moments, we disrupted their flow of offense,” Brady said.

While defense defines these teams this season, both also have a history of colorful characters and rich traditions.

LSU had Shaq, Dale Brown and Pete Maravich. UCLA had Wooden, more great players than there’s room to list and those 11 national-title banners hanging from Pauley Pavilion.

It has all the makings of a glamour matchup.

Only in this game, glitz figures to be overshadowed by a big dose of defensive grit.

“I think if you didn’t know who was saying it, Ben Howland’s comments are similar to mine,” Brady said. “You’d probably read that defensively, what his plan is, what mine is, what he emphasized, what I emphasized, they all may be the same.”

AP-ES-03-31-06 1841EST