TUCSON — So now you think they’re going to win the NCAA championship.
That is UCLA’s frame of reference. It is a mentality that has survived a 36-year span with only one championship.
Don’t tell a Bruin fan about Gonzaga and Villanova and North Carolina and Kansas. Don’t expect perspective. Ben Howland coached UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours, beginning in 2006. He didn’t win one, and it took about 24 months for the howling to begin.
This particular UCLA team has earned its right to plant dreams. On Saturday night it endured Arizona, 77-72, in one of college basketball’s most haunted houses.
It has only lost three games this season, all of them in the Pac-12, and has beaten everyone on its schedule at least once. But all this means is that its fan base will not understand any circumstance that denies UCLA the big trophy at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Steve Alford was talking about being “ready for March,” and the Bruins certainly appear to be, but April is what we’re talking about.
The problem with looking ahead, or letting yourself be defined by a single-elimination rodeo, is that you forget about nights as special as Saturday. It was a win that nobody in UCLA blue will forget, even if everyone else does.
This didn’t just boost UCLA’s record to 3-0 against teams ranked in the AP Top 5 this season. This reinforced what Alford has said all along, that the Bruins aren’t just a trapeze act that can only thrive at 78 rpm.
They weren’t a good defensive team when they gave up 96 points to Arizona at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 21. But teams change quicker than labels do. The Bruins might not have the feet to guard everyone man-to-man, but they are capable of playing a coordinated, contentious zone when they need to, and they don’t give up offensive boards when they do so. They gave up four against Arizona and grabbed 14 themselves with 20 second-chance points.
Alford has shrewdly played all the criticism into a sense of mission. UCLA teams aren’t usually permitted to play the persecution card, but they’ve used all the criticism of the defense, and their No. 4 projected NCAA tournament seed, to give themselves something to prove.
In the wake of this win, the ESPN bracket revised the Bruins upward to a No. 3. You might wonder why they’re so low with their 26-3 record. Their non-conference strength of schedule number is the problem. It is 289.
It seems weird because UCLA did win at Kentucky in December. And it wasn’t UCLA’s fault that Michigan, Texas A&M and Ohio State turned up mediocre. But the rest of the nonleague games were against the Big West, the WCC and Western Michigan.
This is also where you must remind yourself that the seeds only mean something on Selection Sunday. If you don’t think anyone can lose at any time, check the Middle Tennessee-Michigan State tape from last year’s first round.
Chances are that Lonzo Ball, with hands like Allstate, will not let that happen. And the fact that UCLA has ground out half-court victories over Oregon and Arizona is valuable currency for what’s ahead.
It got only nine fastbreak points against Arizona and it shot 8 for 26 from the 3-point line. It still won, without hitting everything in the middle of the clubface.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said that his team fell into the trap of shooting too many 3s. He also said this: “They were the bigger, stronger, tougher, more physical team.”
So now you think they’re going to win the national championship. You might be right or wrong, but you’re not alone.
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