UCLA just good enough
The beauty of college basketball is that there’s no beholder who matters.
That’s good news for UCLA, because to these brown eyes, the Bruins don’t have the look of a No. 1 team right now. No dominant low-post scorer, no consistent outside shooting, shaky at the free-throw line, no overwhelming talent.
Fortunately for UCLA, this isn’t Division I-A college football. Opinions and computer rankings don’t matter. Even the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee and its RPI printouts can be taken out of the mix by winning your conference and winning six games in the NCAA tournament.
And of all the qualities top-ranked UCLA demonstrated Saturday in its 65-62 victory over Texas A&M; at the Wooden Classic, a tournament-style toughness was the one that stood out in this bumper-car basketball contest John Wooden himself called “a defensive battle.”
“Feels like an NCAA tournament game to me,” said Ben Howland, the current UCLA coach.
Everything about the setting echoed March conditions. A neutral arena filled with multiple school colors and bands. Jim Nantz and Billy Packer on the sideline calling the game for CBS. Even the weather felt more like spring than winter. Also the Bruins played this game while preparing for final exams, a hazard of the quarterly academic schedule that also pops up during the tournament.
A necessity for any team that aspires to cut down the nets in April is the ability to win when you’re not at your best.
Texas A&M; outscored UCLA in the paint, 32-24. The Aggies won the rebounding battle, 34-23. And UCLA made only eight of 16 free throws.
Usually that adds up to a loss. In this case it made for a victorious eight-clap.
Just enough things went right -- including a Darren Collison three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer that wound up providing the winning margin.
It’s telling that the sequence that gave the Bruins the lead for good involved Arron Afflalo’s making only one free throw after getting fouled on a three-point attempt, followed on the next possession by Josh Shipp’s losing control of the ball to have it bounce off the face of Texas A&M;'s Antanas Kavaliauskas and right back to him for a layup. It was all braced by some lockdown defense that held the Aggies to two points in a critical five-minute stretch. It was as beautiful as a surgical scar, but it got the job done.
“We just toughed it out at the end,” Shipp said.
UCLA remained undefeated at 8-0, and remains atop the polls practically by default.
Howland isn’t sure he would vote his team No. 1. He said he hasn’t seen enough of the other teams to have a valid opinion. I saw enough in the Ohio State-North Carolina game to think of two more appealing teams right away. But I wonder if the speed of North Carolina’s freshmen will pull games away from tough-guy sophomore Tyler Hansbrough and lighten his impact. And I’m not sure how Ohio State will score late in games when the tempo slows down.
That’s one thing I like about the Bruins: they have guys who can get buckets. Their names are Shipp and Afflalo. With UCLA ahead by a point and just over eight minutes left, Afflalo took the ball from beyond the three-point arc on the right side over near the elbow of the key on the left side, then pulled up for a jump shot. All one-on-one action, no screens or passes needed. Afflalo doesn’t zoom or soar his way to baskets; he negotiates, with all the cool of a guy handling a hostage crisis.
Afflalo also made the difference defensively. Texas A&M; guard Acie Law worked Collison, getting to the hoop for most of his 21 points. Howland wanted to use Afflalo on Law, but early foul trouble made it difficult to keep Afflalo in the game, let alone guard Texas A&M;'s most active player. But in the last four minutes, Afflalo took on the challenge and stuck as close to Law as Law’s maroon undershirt.
Hmmm, Final Four. Key words. Can the Bruins make it back one year after their trip to Indianapolis?
“We’re better than we were a year ago at this time,” Howland said. “We’re a better team in my mind. And we should be. We’ve got a veteran group of guys coming back. But we’ve got a long, tough road to hoe.”
Experience isn’t usually an attribute of a team without a senior, but last season’s NCAA tournament run accelerated the aging process, reminiscent of the montage in the finale of “Six Feet Under.” Plus Shipp is back from a hip injury.
The Bruins need more manly performances from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute like his 24-point, 11-rebound game in the season opener against Brigham Young. In the last two games, Mbah a Moute has a combined six points and six rebounds.
Howland said he isn’t concerned about him, noting that Mbah a Moute had to miss practice Thursday because of a strained groin. What does worry Howland is the team’s poor free-throw shooting, now at 60% for the season. If that doesn’t improve, it could be UCLA’s undoing.
For now, however, the Bruins have just enough things going right to be still undefeated, still No. 1. Reminds me of when my grandmother used to attach an “Esq.” to the letters she sent me -- it might not be accurate, but it looks nice next to their name.
“When it’s really important,” Howland said, “is April 3.”