There are two ways to explain UCLA’s narrow escape in the second round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Either the Bruins just had a rare flat game in edging Texas A&M, 53-49, in Anaheim. Or their weaknesses were exposed and magnified, especially when they fell 10 points behind in the second half.
“They outplayed us for 39 minutes,” said UCLA assistant coach Donny Daniels. “But when you play 35 games you can’t play great every time. It’s impossible.”
UCLA, the top seed in the West Region, move on to a game Thursday night against 12th seeded Western Kentucky in Phoenix. And if successful, the Bruins will have an opportunity Saturday to earn a berth in the Final Four for the third straight year.
But some weaknesses have to be addressed. Forward Josh Shipp is in such a shooting slump that he began the week having made only 13 of 70 shots in the last 15 games. Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was out of sync as he returned from a two-game absence due to a sprained left ankle.
UCLA has a 33-3 record and it’s the first time in the school’s illustrious basketball history that it has won 33 games in a season. However, there have been numerous close calls lately.
Western Kentucky likes a fast tempo and was expected to try for that pace against UCLA. The Bruins don’t mind running either, but are more reliant on a strong defense.
In recent games it has become obvious that UCLA has two superior players, freshman center Kevin Love and junior point guard Darren Collison.
When Love arrived this season as a heralded high school player from Lake Oswego, Oregon, it was said he might not be a starter since Lorenzo Mata-Real was returning from a Final Four team and how often does a freshman beat out a senior?
I thought that was faulty thinking based on Love’s high school tapes I had seen and conversations with basketball authorities, some with NBA backgrounds.
Don MacLean disagreed too and the Bruins announcer uttered a quote that became popular nationally.
“If practice starts at 9 a.m. he’ll be a starter at 9:01.”
So Love was an immediate starter, but then it became trendy to emphasize that he lacked the athleticism a great player would need.
Love was 10 pounds overweight, but he lost the weight and began running and jumping better. Then came a succession of remarkable performances that included 19 points, 11 rebounds, and seven blocked shots against Texas A&M.
Love has been voted Pac-10 Player of the Year and a first team All-American. If he departs for the NBA after one season his time in Westwood will be remembered fondly.
Collison was injured early in the season and didn’t make first team all-Pac-10. But he’s been outstanding in the second half of the season and his 21 points against Texas A&M were vital.
UCLA was thought to have a favorable NCAA bracket, and there’s reason to believe it’s even easier now that No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 Connecticut have been eliminated. But the Texas A&M game served as a reminder there are few easy games in the national tournament.
This weekend the Final Four teams will be determined and they’ll head for San Antonio.
The Pac-10 Conference, which claimed to be the nation’s best, is doing well with three teams in the Sweet 16. Stanford and Washington State have made it too.
USC was one of three other Pac-10 teams to lose their first round games, and it could be the end of O.J. Mayo’s Trojan career. He lived up to expectations as a scorer, setting several school records for a freshman. But he too has NBA ambitions and may move on.