UC-Santa Barbara Tries To Be Arizona's Next Santa Clara

March 14, 2002

By PETE HERRERA
AP Sports Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Lute Olson has made 18 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, reached four Final Fours since 1988 and won a national championship.

But he knows - all too well - that no resume is good enough to give a highly seeded team like his immunity from a first-round knockout.

Fifteenth seed Santa Clara knocked Olson's No. 2 Wildcats out in 1993. Two years later, No. 12 Miami of Ohio eliminated No. 5 Arizona. In 1999, two seasons after their national title run, the Wildcats - a No. 4 seed - lost to 13th seed Oklahoma. Two years ago, Wisconsin's run to the Final Four included a second-round win over No. 2 Arizona in Salt Lake City.

Could UC-Santa Barbara, another 13th seed, be next against this year's Wildcats? The 67-year-old Olson hopes not.

"I think the experience of having been in as many as we've been is certainly helpful in terms of making sure that the team doesn't get up too tight," Olson said Wednesday. "The first few times you're in it, you're uptight yourself and it's hard for the kids not to see that."

What most fans in Albuquerque are hoping to see is No. 3 Arizona versus Gonzaga in Saturday's second round. Gonzaga, along with Duke and Michigan State, are the only schools to reach the round of 16 the past three seasons.

Arizona versus Gonzaga would match last year's national runner-up Wildcats against the perennial tournament darlings. It also would feature a baseline-to-baseline meeting between two of the country's best point guards: Arizona's Jason Gardner and Gonzaga's Dan Dickau.

Arizona (22-9) and UC-Santa Barbara (20-10) meet in the final game of Thursday's first round. Gonzaga, a mere sixth seed despite the Zags' 29-3 record, plays No. 11 Wyoming (21-8) in the first game of the evening's doubleheader.

No. 5 Miami (24-7) and No. 12 Missouri (21-11) met in the regional opener, followed by No. 4 Ohio State (23-7) against No. 13 Davidson (21-9).

Gardner, who made himself eligible for the NBA draft last April, then decided to return for his junior year, said the Wildcats are well schooled in the perils of looking ahead.

"The year we lost to Wisconsin, we were looking forward to playing LSU," he said. "At this point, any team can beat you."

Wildcats forward Luke Walton adds the Wildcats aren't the only team that needs to worry.

"I think Wyoming's a great team, so they (Gonzaga's players) can't look ahead, either," he said. "I'm not even personally set on playing Gonzaga yet. All I'm thinking about is Santa Barbara."

With the demise of North Carolina, Arizona owns the longest streak of consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats kept it going despite losing four starters from last year's team.

"Arizona presents five unique challenges, and they're all starting for them," UCSB coach Bob Williams said.

The Gauchos, out of the Big West Conference, aren't intimidated by Arizona, says junior forward Mark Hull.

"We've played USC, UCLA, Stanford when I was a freshman," he said. "We see them on TV all the time."

Gonzaga has thrived as the underdog in recent tournaments and comes in with its highest seed ever at No. 6. After setting a school record for wins this season, the Zags believed they deserved better, but coach Mark Few says that's not an issue anymore.

"That's one thing our program's always done a great job of, understanding that when the ball goes up, seeding doesn't matter," Few said. "It initially upset our guys, but now they're focused."

Marcus Bailey, Wyoming's leading scorer, said the Cowboys, in the tournament for the first time in 14 years, welcome the underdog role vacated by Gonzaga.

"Everyone's talking about Arizona-Gonzaga in the second round," he said. "So we can go out there and just have fun."