Inconsistent UCLA faces a different kind of final four

UCLA’s ritual this time of year has been to eye the NCAA tournament bracket, anticipating what a No. 1 or No. 2 seeding might bring.

There will be no smooth path starting in San Diego or Sacramento or Anaheim this season. There are no men’s NCAA sites in California at all.

More to the point, with a No. 36 RPI after losing three of their last four games, the Bruins look more like a No. 7-seeded team that will need to play better to last very long in the NCAA tournament no matter where they land.

“The regular season, it’s almost over. We have four games left, and then the toughest part of the season starts,” center Alfred Aboya said.

“We’ve got to show that sense of urgency the rest of the season.”


Three of their final four games are against teams in the bottom four of the Pacific 10 Conference standings, but that isn’t all a comfort. So is Washington State, which upset the Bruins at home on Saturday and shot holes in the UCLA defense two days after the Bruins’ important win over Washington.

The Bay Area trip that begins at Stanford tonight and continues at California on Saturday has both a potential pitfall and an obvious challenge. Stanford has lost four of its last six since losing to UCLA, 97-63, on Jan. 31.

Cal entered the week tied with UCLA for third in the Pac-10 standings, behind Washington and Arizona State. UCLA won the first meeting, 81-66.

“We were really [with our] backs against the wall that time, just like we are now,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. “We had just come off a loss on the road to Washington and we played very well against Cal,” a team Howland called “very, very good.”

“We know how hard these two games are going to be on this road trip because of how talented their teams are, how well coached they are and seniors that are playing at home for the last time and all that goes into those types of games.”

The Bruins have virtually no margin for error in the Pac-10 race, a fact the players said could help.

“It just seems like when our back is against the wall, we play better,” point guard Darren Collison said. “But in some games we’re just out there running through the motions. We can’t have that.”

The Pac-10 regular-season title and tournament wait to be claimed. It’s just that the Bruins haven’t played with the consistency to suggest they are likely to grab them.

But forward Josh Shipp, who said his senior season has not gone “at all” like he expected, said the bull’s-eye on a Bruins team that has won three consecutive Pac-10 titles and reached three consecutive Final Fours is smaller now, and that is not all bad.

“The main thing, I think we’re all excited. We’re at the point where we don’t have anything to lose,” Shipp said.

“We still have the Pac-10 tournament. We still have the NCAA tournament. So our season can turn out very well. For us, like I said, it’s just getting that intensity going these last few games and hopefully going on a streak.”

A streak would require the same effort against Stanford -- and for Oregon State and Oregon next week -- as the Bruins summon for Cal.

“That’s what we talk about a lot. We can’t go out there and play to our level of competition. We’ve got to perform every day,” Collison said. “They want to beat UCLA because we’ve won it for the last three years. That’s enough to get them motivated. We’ve got to motivate ourselves.

“We’ve got to be in there mentally. Everything else is cool. Like I said, this team does well when our backs are against the wall.”



UCLA tonight


Time: 7:30.

On the air: TV: FSN Prime Ticket; Radio: 1150.

Where: Maples Pavilion.

Records: UCLA 20-7, 9-5; Stanford 15-10, 4-10.

Update: Stanford started the season 10-0 under new Coach Johnny Dawkins but has won only five games since. The Cardinal’s only victory in the last five games was over Cal State Bakersfield. When UCLA and Stanford met on Jan. 31 at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins had their highest-scoring conference game in Coach Ben Howland’s tenure in a 97-63 victory. Anthony Goods leads Stanford in scoring at 15.7 points per game, and Lawrence Hill adds 13.6.

-- Robyn Norwood