With one week left in the regular season, UCLA is in a tie for first place with Oregon for the Pac-12 title, thanks to the its victory last night over a reeling Arizona.
There are those in the nutty, often infantile echo chamber of unrealistic Bruins fans that will likely spin this win as simply an unremarkable victory over a paper tiger from Tucson, but in the real world this was a huge win—for UCLA and Ben Howland. Most experts agree that parity is at an all-time high in college basketball. There is no super dominant team this season. Teams are unpredictable night to night. Just look at this past week.
Yesterday, No. 20 Butler was slaughtered by 32 points by unranked VCU. In unrealistic Bruin Fan Land, Brad Stevens is the second coming of John Wooden and a vastly superior coach to Ben Howland. Trying to remember the last time Coach Wooden or Coach Howland had a ranked team so completely dismantled on national TV, but I digress. Mighty No. 12 Syracuse, purveyors of the magical guarantor of victory known as zone defense, lost their third game in a row yesterday. This past Thursday, No. 3 Duke lost to unranked Virginia. On Wednesday last, No. 4 Michigan lost to winless-in-the-Big Ten Penn St, and No. 11 Arizona lost to lowly ‘SC. The night before that, No. 1 Indiana lost to unranked Minnesota who entered the game 6-8 in the Big Ten and losers of four of their last five games. On that same night, No. 8 Florida lost to marginal and unranked Tennessee who found a way to lose four nights later to a meek Georgia team.
In this climate of unpredictable college basketball, the Bruins appear to have found themselves. They are not a great team yet, but they’re darn good and peaking at the right time. Winners of four in a row and six of their last seven, the Bruins are a sweep of the Washington road trip (and an Oregon loss at Colorado or Utah) away from completing their objective of winning the Pac-12 regular season title and securing the #1 seed in the Pac-12 Tourney. If they realize that, which is looking reasonably likely, and then win the conference tournament, they would be 27-7, winners of nine of their last ten games, and red hot in the eyes of the tourney committee. If that comes to fruition, there could be some frustrated Howland-haters out there.
We’re not predicting here that that’s how the rest of the season will play out. The Bruins could stumble in Washington, and get knocked out in the first round of the Pac-12 Tourney. However, right now they don’t look like a team primed for a fall. They look like a team ready to make a sustained run. Last night they came out and took control of the game for good within the first three minutes. Arizona made runs here and there, as good teams will do. But the Bruins never relinquished the lead after the 17:08 mark in the first half, and answered every challenge—as good teams will do.
There were things to grouse about. The Bruins lost the rebounding battle to Arizona, but that was largely rectified in the second half. The Bruins’ largest lead was 14 points, but they let that get ground down to three points with a minute and change to go in the game. The last five minutes of the game the Bruins self-destructed by becoming too conservative. They took just two shots and scored just one basket while giving up five turnovers in that last segment. Coach Howland will no doubt look to correct that, but they won. To repeat: they won.
Incidentally, Jay Bilas provided some keen and even-handed insight into his perception of the state of the UCLA program and Coach Howland while on campus. Check out the live blog at the Daily Bruin and read it in its entirety.
Ahead for the Bruins is the aforementioned road trip to Washington. Neither game is a “gimme,” but both teams occupy the bottom half of the Pac-12 and represent winnable games. The Bruins can’t overlook bottom feeder WSU, and they have to brace themselves for the hell that is the Huskies’ home environment, but it is reasonable to expect them to win these last two games. Whether you’re a true-blue, sane Bruins fan, or a madcap resident of a certain Howland hating ilk bent on supporting a tortured view of the Bruins season, you have to admit one thing—these aren’t the Bruins of November.