Musings, Facts on UCLA Hoops

With UCLA tied for first in the Pac-10 and on a late-season surge, here are some thoughts on the RPI, Bracketology, the Blue Out, and other things of current relevance to Bruin basketball heading in to March...

1. UCLA's RPI is now at #35 (the historically magic number that virtually guarantees an at-large bid), with the Bruins now projected as an #8-seed by both Joe Lunardi and the far more reliable Jerry Palm (Palm has Arizona as a #7-seed and Washington as a #10-seed). Now with three wins over RPI top-25 teams, the Bruins have what has to be considered the most impressive overall Tournament resume in the Pac-10 (it wouldn't even be up for debate if we could just erase that pesky Montana loss).

2. While things do look very good for the Bruins to make the NCAAs, even if the Bruins were to now end the season on a three-game losing streak (including the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament), keep in mind that some on-the-outside-the-bubble teams will close strong (like Virgina Tech and Marquette) and teams that literally just a few days ago weren't even in the discussion (like Colorado and Baylor) can vault themselves right back into it with a single noteworthy win. Meanwhile, conference tournaments and their usual upsets and at-large bid-stealing hasn't even started yet. So to be extra sure, I'm looking for the Bruins to grab one more victory between now and Selection Sunday to move them to my own internal "lock" status. Besides, a three-game losing streak means a double-digit seed and a likely one-and-out scenario. Can this team do better than that?

3. That brings us to where two different points are starting to converge. First, just how good is this team, and second, does this team now get greedy? Following the stretch where the Bruins won 9 of 10, I noted that all they'd really done was beat the teams they should (almost exclusively bad to mediocre teams at home) and put themselves in a position to earn an NCAA bid over the final three weeks of the regular-season. It would be over those final three weeks where the schedule would get tougher and the Bruins would answer whether they were a good team or not by earning an NCAA bid or not. Four games into the stretch and the Bruins have answered the question mostly positively. They played very well (with requisite March intensity) in winning at Stanford, but followed that up with a very poor first 25 minutes and OT in losing at Cal. Then there was the first ten minutes against ASU (followed by 30 minutes of taking care of business) and then Saturday's impressive thumping of Arizona. I thought we needed to win 4 of 6, and so far we're 3-1, with one very impressive win that led Sean Miller to say of the Bruins: "They've become the best defensive team in our conference."

4. So yeah, they're looking pretty good. They seemed to rise to the occasion and are close to doing what they needed to do to earn an NCAA bid (if they haven't already). Of course, Arizona was riding high when they swept Washington and Washington State at home, only to go on the road and get swept at USC and UCLA. And that's where we are right now. The Bruins are generally playing well, if only sporadically. The team seems to have developed and improved over the course of the season (Miller's quote is jaw-dropping when held up to the team that played in NYC), but to what end? I'm still not sold that this is a team that's capable of winning multiple games in the NCAA's, or even getting to a high enough seed to make such a scenario likely, or even possible. The oppurtunity is there with these two road games this weekend and then the Pac-10 Tournament next week, but will the team seize it? Are they even talented and poised enough to do it?

5. And that's the convergence. Very clearly, what this team needs to do to take itself to the next level is do something it hasn't done all year: beat a quality team on the road (or at least a true neutral court). Doing so now, would have the added benefit of greatly improving the Bruins' NCAA and Pac-10 Tournament seeding and even share of the Pac-10's regular season title, so winning this weekend literally means that it will be easier to win more games over the next two or three weeks. That's how close a break-through run is. My question is then, is this team greedy for more, or will they be content having thumped Arizona in Pauley's farewell and all but sealed up an NCAA bid. Is that enough, or are they greedy for more wins and more success?

6. So that brings us to Thursday's game at Washington. The Huskies are reeling. I don't think even their own fans realize just how thin their resume is and how precarious their at-large hopes are. This season has already been a huge disappointment and step backward for the Washington program (on the court and on the recruiting trail), and now the Huskies are one loss this week from getting knocked off the bubble, and probably needing to a run in the Pac-10 Tournament for a second year in a row to get a bid. If the Bruins can do the impossible and go into Hec Ed and come out with a win, it's not just a chance for Josh Smith to face down an intensely hostile crowd in his homecoming, it's not just a chance to keep pace for the Pac-10 title and improve our seeding... what it is, is a chance to deliver a death-blow to Washington and remove them as an obstacle to the Bruins return to Pac-10 supremacy. How's that for a build-up?

7. For those who did not attend Saturday's game, I noticed a slight up-tick in blue worn, but nowhere near the uniformity that many other schools are able to achieve. Nice try, but next time maybe give out decent t-shirts and I bet the athletic department will have more success. Still, the atmosphere was electric from the opening minute and the crowd was loud and involved (it never ceases to amaze me how quiet Pauley sounds on TV when compared to being there). While it was such a moving and special goodbye for now, it also served to remind you if you were there what Pauley is capable of on its best days. 18 months from now, a newly refurbished Pauley will re-open its doors, with hopefully many of those best days still to come.

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