GREENSBORO, N.C. -- UCLA isn't interested in hearing about Duke's tradition. The Bruins have some of their own and are eager to remind the Blue Devils of it.
With a win over Utah State in the NCAA tournament, UCLA advanced to the round of 16 for the third consecutive year. The Bruins (23-8) earned a date with top-seeded Duke, a team they've grown weary of hearing about.
"Duke's like any other team to me - they're great, they have a lot of tradition. But you don't go to UCLA and say, 'I want to play Duke really bad,"' guard Earl Watson said.
"We're UCLA ... we carry a legacy," he said. "Not only do we have to face them, but they have to face us. It's going to be a battle. It's going to be a war."
Watson has extra incentive against Duke. He last faced the Blue Devils in 1998, when Duke embarrassed UCLA in a 120-84 victory. Watson had a miserable outing that day with two points, two turnovers, one assist and one rebound in 27 minutes.
Duke didn't renew the home-and-home series after that game and Watson wasn't sure if he'd ever get another shot against the Blue Devils.
Afterward, he considered going home to Kansas City. Bruins coach Steve Lavin talked him out of it, just as he did on several other occasions when Watson needed assurance that he belonged at UCLA.
Now a senior, Watson couldn't imagine life without UCLA. He cried after Senior Night and embraced Lavin in a long emotional hug after Saturday's win against Utah State.
"It's been a long road, one I couldn't have made without coach," he said. "He's always been there for me, like a brother. When I was down and homesick, he talked to me about other things and convinced me how silly it would all seem two weeks down the road."
Lavin chooses his words carefully when he remembers those days, his eyes dropping down as a wave of emotion hits him.
"He was very introverted when he came to UCLA, very quiet and very shy," Lavin said. "He was very slow to trust people, and I don't know why.
"The quantum leaps he has made are really special and I've been really blessed to play a small part in his development. He's gone from not being sure he belonged to one of the all-time greats, kind of turned into the mayor of Westwood."
There's a strong bond between Lavin and these Bruins. Although this year marks the fourth time in his five seasons he's taken UCLA into the round of 16, this is the first time he's done it with a team made up strictly of players he recruited.
They've been through thick and thin with Lavin, supporting him every time their play led to questions about his job security, and turned it up a notch when he drew fire after their 4-4 start this season.
"If I'm going to struggle, this is a group I want to struggle with," Lavin said. "This is a remarkable group - their maturity, character, togetherness. Seeing their individual and collective improvement has made this a special season for me."
© 2017. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us