But right now, in college basketball, there isn't a team that looks more like a potential national champion than UCLA.
The Bruins particularly looked like champions when they beat Washington State in Pullman Thursday, 53-45, to win the Pac-10 Conference Championship outright for the second year in a row under Head Coach Ben Howland.
Again, you have to go back to Tim Floyd's reference to Arizona being the measuring stick in the Pac-10. It rings so much of a guy who just doesn't want to face that his crosstown rival is the measuring stick for the country.
If you randomly turn on your TV to watch a college basketball game, any game across the nation, most of the time, if you know anything about basketball, you'll come away cringing. The quality of college basketball across the nation isn't great.
But the game you saw Thursday between UCLA and Washington State was a great game. These are two well-coached, disciplined teams that play their hearts out, and when they faced each other for the Pac-10 championship, it was a war.
It's not a coincidence that these are the two teams that lead the Pac-10 in points allowed. Defense is the name of the game, baby. Teams like Arizona and Washington can score a lot of points, and attract recruits that want to run and gun, but the teams sitting atop the Pac-10 are the two that play defense. Recruits will notice that more than anything.
Many casual college basketball fans would look at the score, 53-45, and assume it was an ugly "grinder" of a game. It was a grinder, but far from ugly. Watching UCLA and WSU play defense is a thing of beauty. It's two artists, trying to out-paint each other, with the physical and mental toughness of two prize fighters. There were so few open looks between the two teams that coaches across the country should play a tape of the game as a defensive clinic. Both teams worked so hard to out-D the other, and that meant some great energy and focus in ball denial, hedging and pushing through screens, switching, help defense and – what has become UCLA's signature for its D – drawing a charge. Is there a team in the country that knows how to draw a charge better than UCLA? The Bruins get 3 to 5 turnovers a game that other teams aren't getting by being so well-schooled in taking charges. If you've ever tried to draw a charge, you know it's not an easy thing to do, and UCLA does it with such ease. When you see an opposing player driving into the lane slightly out of control, every Bruin fan now is hoping for that Bruin big to get position and longs to see that opponent fall into him. Watching Alfred Aboya, the big, strong, 240-pound body of his, falling over from being set as an opponent slams into him is about the prettiest thing you can watch on a replay.
Again, a thing of beauty. It's so beautiful because, first, it's so effective, but also because every basketball fan recognizes that it's the fundamental and right way to play basketball. In an environment when And-1, video games and a run-and-gun style has infected every 8-year-old kid who picks up a basketball, it's a throwback to doing things the right way. That sense of rightenousness is why, when you watch it, it makes you deeply appreciate its beauty.
And UCLA fans, it's ours. That righteousness is now UCLA basketball.
And don't take this in a wrong way, but there isn't a more beautiful basketball player in the nation than UCLA's Arron Afflalo. Watching Arron Afflalo on defense, shadowing WSU's most dangerous perimeter player, Derrick Low, is beautiful. Afflalo kept Low to 2 points on one-of-eight shooting, and 0-for-4 from three. The one basket he did make was a mini-prayer banker from about 15 feet, with Afflalo harrassing him. This is a guy averaging a team high 13.4 points. It would be the equivalent of holding Afflalo to two points, which would be a tremendous accomplishment.
But it's just not Afflalo's defense and scoring ability that make him the most beautiful basketball player in the country. The UCLA program has become a reflection of his personality. While it, of course, reflects Howland, it also in the last three years has become a reflection of Afflalo's heart, toughness and competitiveness. While many national pundits are claiming that Darren Collison is the Pac-10 Player of the Year, and we can easily understand why, they don't know how much of Afflalo's personality has molded this program. If it hadn't been for Afflalo, who bought into Howland's dedication to defense, and his heart, it's impossible to imagine this program and team being the same as it is now.
That character gives UCLA the strength to go into Pullman, Washington, for perhaps the biggest game in Washington State history in the last 20 years, and play with poise and maturity. After UCLA had beaten the Cougars, the Bruins are so poised and classy you didn't see any chest-thumping or fist-raising until they left the court. They even win Pac-10 championships with an old-style, classy righteousness.
In this game, it was not only two artists, but two chess masters squaring off. WSU did what it could to limit UCLA's very effective offense in getting easy baskets. It knew what UCLA was going to do before it did it, which is the sign of a great defense. So many of UCLA's usual plays it sniffed out. But UCLA countered, knowing that WSU would take away some of its bread and butter. It worked to generate mis-matches, getting Afflalo or Josh Shipp guarded by WSU's smaller, weaker guards. It knew that the combination of executing an offense deep into the shot clock and having the bodies of Afflalo and Shipp pounding on WSU's defenders would wear down the Cougars. And it did. In the second half, UCLA made a critical 9-0 run to start the second half that was the difference in the game. In that stretch, UCLA executed and isolated, WSU was a step slower than they were in the first half, and UCLA got some easy baskets.
On the other end, in a well-orchestrated counter attack, UCLA's defense stepped it up for the first four minutes of the half and kept WSU scoreless. The Cougars didn't get a decent look in that time and went 0-for-6, while UCLA was converting every one of its offensive possessions.
It really is the same story we've seen all year. UCLA wears down opponents with an active defense and an offense that executes deep into the shot clock. That wear-down then produces at least one, if not a few, stretches in the second half where the opponent lets down, and UCLA jumps on them.
After that 9-0 run, UCLA did what it needed to do, and rode out the second half, making WSU execute its offense to get a basket and making them defend deep into the shot clock. Washington State, with its slowdown style, isn't a team that can make big comebacks, since it works the entire shot clock and doesn't get many points in transition. The way to beat them is to beat them at their own game – wear them down, take advantage, get a good lead, and then, in a deliberate, slow style, exchange baskets. UCLA did it with artistry.
A great deal of credit for the thing of beauty Thursday goes to Collison, who followed up two poor games with one of the most mature and savvy games of his career. He had just 7 points, but 8 assists, against just two turnovers. He was very smart with the ball, running when there was an opportunity to get UCLA those critical transition points, while also executing with patience in the halfcourt offense to get UCLA the best look it could get. He had some assists that were, by themselves, things of beauty, hitting cutters through the lane. One bounce pass on a break to Josh Shipp that was part of UCLA's initial run at the beginning of the game was, well, (again) beautiful.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had 10 points, and was far more aggressive going to the basket. He traveled a couple of times, but you still want Mbah a Moute, when he catches the ball at about 10-15 feet, to try to take his man since he's either too quick or too strong for his defender.
Alfred Aboya played one of his better games of the season, finishing with 8 points and four rebounds, being the recipient, along with Mbah a Moute, of some assists when UCLA broke down WSU's defense that ended in dunks. Aboya also showed some post moves, a lefty jump hook and one in the first half, using his right hand along the baseline that he did with such confidence and ease you would think he'd been doing it all season. And there were those beautiful charges he drew.
UCLA fans have been hoping that this team would work through some of its issues, improve and peak when it needed to. While there are still some issues, they definitely have eliminated most of them, and are showing consistency and poise that is unusual right now in the college basketball season. Beating WSU clinched the Pac-10 title outright, and almost certainly clinched a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. With UCLA's nation-leading RPI, it also probably clinched the overall #1 seed in the Big Dance, barring a first-round loss in the Pac-10 tournament. UCLA, arguably, is the best team in the country right now.
And it's a beautiful thing.