The march to madness, seven more days and counting down . . .
Ever steady so far, the No. 1-ranked UCLA Bruins get one more regular-season litmus test today in hostile territory, against a team desperate for a big victory.
What's a winning streak worth with only a week left before NCAA tournament selection time and a playoff spot in pocket?
For the 22-2 Bruins, today's game against a dangerous 16-12 Louisville team is about keeping the minds sharp and maintaining the same edge that has won them their last 10 games and lifted them to the top of the polls.
"We don't need peaks and valleys at this point in the season," guard Cameron Dollar said. "We need everything to be at even keel."
That has been a problem for the Bruins in recent seasons.
Last year, they lost six of their last 13 regular-season games--after a 14-0 start--including a shocking defeat at Oregon in their final game before the tournament. They followed that loss, which denied them a share of the Pac-10 title, with another to Tulsa in the first round.
Two years ago, UCLA split its last six regular-season games, beat Iowa State in the first round of the tournament, then lost to Michigan in overtime in the second round.
For Coach Jim Harrick, whose team has wrapped up the Pac-10 title, the important thing is neither the poll-number associated with his team nor continuing the victory roll.
Harrick, who seemed to be foreshadowing a potential upset by the Cardinals, said he wants his team to play well and stay focused, win or lose, as it readies for the tournament.
"I wouldn't be disappointed if we somehow got beat one game," Harrick said, referring to the Bruins' final three regular-season games. UCLA entertains the Oregon schools next Thursday and Saturday.
"In college basketball, to go on someone's home floor and win a game, it's kind of an upset," Harrick said. "Even if we do lose one more time, we've still got as good a record as anybody."
And what if UCLA lost the No. 1 ranking?
"How important is that?" Harrick asked. "On Sunday night, the 12th of March (the day the tournament field is set), what's everyone going to do with the polls? Forget about it for three weeks because it becomes insignificant."
But the Bruin players were not so philosophical about the possibility of losing to Louisville, which beat Kentucky earlier this season at Freedom Hall and celebrated the return of star freshman center Samaki Walker from a four-game injury absence with a victory over Virginia Commonwealth on Thursday.
UCLA, they say, is protecting its sure-fire No. 1 seeding in the West regional and is working to dump its reputation as a mediocre March team.
"It's a very big game, because it's back over there, on that side of the country, and it's also a nationally televised game," Dollar said. "We're trying to seal up the No. 1 seed and maintain the No. 1 ranking at the same time.
"Most people on the East Coast will judge us by that game."
Said senior center George Zidek, "It's a good preparation for the tournament, because it's going to be a real tough game at their place.
"We can't be relaxed for it--non-Pac-10 referees, the crowd's going to be cheering for Louisville. It'll be good preparation."