March 23, 2000
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Pressure goes with the blue and gold uniforms of the UCLA Bruins.
Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It is why many of the nation's best players want to play for the Bruins.
It might also be why 11 NCAA banners hang in Pauley Pavilion. And why Earl Watson plays for UCLA instead of Iowa State.
"I was very tempted to go to Iowa State," said Watson, who will lead the sixth-seeded Bruins (21-11) against the No. 2-seed Cyclones (31-4) in the second game of two Midwest regional semifinal games tonight at The Palace.
Top-seeded Michigan State (28-7), trying to reach the Final Four for the second straight year, meets No. 4 Syracuse (26-5) in the first game.
Watson knew Iowa State forward Marcus Fizer from some summer basketball camps they attended together. He was also heavily recruited to join Fizer at Iowa State.
"It's probably the best place to play that nobody knows about," Watson said. "That coach was the first coach in my house. But, all my life, I wanted to be a Bruin."
This is the influence UCLA's proud history can have. But it also can be a burden.
At midseason, the Bruins were 13-11 and getting booed in their own building. While that was tough for the players, it might have made the Bruins better. They haven't lost since and routed Maryland 105-70 in the second round.
In that game, Watson - despite an eye injury that required surgery - led the team with 17 points and a school-record 16 assists to go with no turnovers in 26 minutes.
"Earl has been our catalyst," guard Rico Hines said. "He keeps us together. He gets us rolling. He's the reason we're here."
Actually, he's one of many reasons.
The Bruins also have benefited from the return of forward JaRon Rush, who missed the season because of an NCAA violation. Watson, who has 28 assists in two tournament games, was only one of five players in double figures against Maryland.
"I watch this UCLA team and it looks like a team with a real play," Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy said. "Their coach says they change gears, and they do.
"They know who their scorers are, which happens to be anybody with the ball in their hand."
Eustachy, the Big 12 coach of the year, is trying to build the kind of program at Iowa State that UCLA, Syracuse and Michigan State have - he wants the Cyclones to be contenders every year.
"We don't have the great history that the other three teams do," Eustachy said. "They're in the upper echelon, and we're right below it."
The Cyclones have plenty of tradition. After all, Johnny Orr once was the coach.
"But we don't have the history," Eustachy said. "It's not intimidating. It's just an honor. It took those other schools years to get there. I hope before I'm through we'll have some history."
Fizer, a junior All-American, could go a long way toward making that happen.
"We don't change our game for nobody," said Fizer, the Big 12 player of the year. "We wouldn't change for the Los Angeles Lakers. We want to set the tempo. We want people to play our game."
By HARRY ATKINS
AP Sports Writer