"The Bruins Are in Ruins" a Sports Illustrated headline announced last December after UCLA lost to Notre Dame and then DePaul in a four-day span. The road was not too smooth thereafter, either, as UCLA just squeezed into the NCAA's enlarged, 48-team playoff field with an 18-9 record. But when the dust had settled after last weekend's second-round action in Tempe, Ariz., the Bruins had advanced to tonight's West Regional date against Ohio State with a 77-71 win over top-ranked DePaul.
It was quite an upset since the Blue Demons (26-1 entering the game), had beaten UCLA 99-94 in Westwood during the regular season. DePaul became the nation's dominant team while UCLA slid to fourth in the Pacific 10 after winning the conference 13 consecutive years.
The marked contrast between the respective coaches was among the more intriguing aspects of the UCLA-DePaul rematch. Larry Brown, UCLA's first-year coach, left a successful pro coaching career with the Denver Nuggets to coach at the school where John Wooden won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years.
Ray Meyer has been head coach at DePaul for 38 years, since George Mikan played at DePaul during World War II. Meyer had won 626 college games before last Sunday's showdown with UCLA, Brown 18.
Ironically, Meyer's biggest win ever may have been over UCLA last year, an upset that put DePaul in the NCAA Final Four for the first time in his career. UCLA had three players -- David Greenwood, Brad Holland, and Roy Hamilton -- who were later selected in the first round of the National Basketball Association draft. DePaul had freshman forward Mark Aguirre and a solid supporting cast when they beat the talent-laden Bruins in the NCAA West Regional 95-91.
This year DePaul returned three starters and added three heralded freshmen to the roster. UCLA, meanwhile, had a questionable nucleus of five players who had gone through two other coaches since Wooden retired in 1975. Brown recruited four high school stars to bolster the team, which had no junior class because of a recruiting lapse during the coaching changes.
Brown tried to instill confidence in the upperclassmen by playing them, but only forward Kiki Vandeweghe and James and Wilkes became starters. Vandeweghe emerged as the team's mainstay, finishing the season with a 19.4-point scoring average while shooting 56 percent from the field. Wilkes wasn't as good statistically, but played excellent defense, usually against the opponents' top forward.
Brown substituted freely to see what combination of players would work well, but the mathematical possibilities seemed endless, and no combination was really clicking.
The dapper new coach chided the older players for a lack of enthusiasm, and said some players on the bench were looking at the clock to see how much playing time they could get. Things looked bad for UCLA.
The turnaround really began when in early February Oregon State came to Pauley Pavilion rated second in the nation behind DePaul. Brown had inserted 6 ft. 6 in. Michael Sanders at center, and in their high-post offense Sanders had been effective. He was up against the Beavers' highly regarded 6-11 center, Steve Johnson, and it looked as if there might be a rout. There was, but it was UCLA that routed Oregon State, 93-67.
Then down the stretch UCLA looked impressive in beating Southern Cal, 91-64, making up for an earlier lost to the Trojans, and out-running Washington State 80-66 to secure an NCAA tournament berth for the 14th consecutive year.
In its opening tourney game, UCLA beat Old Dominion 87-74, and followed that with the victory over DePaul. In the latter game, the Bruins played with the intensity that characterized the whole second half of their season. Vandeweghe, Sanders, and Wilkes turned in their usual solid performances, while two seasoned freshmen, guards Rod Foster and Michael Holton, rose to the occasion.
"Foster blew by us with this blazing speed," Meyer said, adding, "The guards have made the big difference in the UCLA team." Holton put UCLA ahead by six points midway through the second half with a soaring slam dunk that brought the Bruin reserves to their feet.
After his 38th season abruptly ended, Meyer spoke with dignity about his dissapointment: "It's the least satisfying season I've had, because you play all season long to get in the NCAA, and then to lose in the first round is tough."
In the UCLA locker room DePaul guard Skip Dillard was talking to Holton and Foster. "You guys can go all the way now, hear?" Dillard said to the freshmen backcourt mates, who were already looking ahead to meeting powerful Ohio State in Tucson.
"So what do you guys think of your season now?" Holton was asked. "I think it's just starting," he said. Maybe only forward Tony Anderson said it better as the team got on the bus: "The Bruins are not in ruins."