The year that will mark the true redemption—1995 aside—of UCLA basketball? The year of Banner Twelve? The season in which the Bruins' majestic past doesn't seem so distant and dust-covered, but is matched, at least a bit, by the achievements of today?
Two weeks ago, this longtime fan's answer would have been an emphatic "Yes!" That was before the exhibition opponent, Azusa Pacific, apparently employed a scorched earth policy toward the Bruin backcourt, and three of UCLA's four guards were injured in the same meaningless game.
But after that scare, with Josh Shipp returning no worse for wear, Darren Collison on the mend, and Mike Roll expected back next month, I'm allowing myself to exhale, and contemplate the season rationally again.
This could be, and should be, The Year.
And after a couple of near misses, wouldn't it be even sweeter?
In April, 2006, as my buddies and I—lifelong Bruins fans all—walked into the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, cries of "Let's hang a banner, boys!" and "Luc Richard Mbah a Moute!" echoed off the concrete ramps leading up to the nosebleed seats, and I thought that the Bruins were already back on top.
Coach Ben Howland, unbelievably, was about to make it an even dozen in Westwood, in only his third season. The mountaintop had been scaled, and the view promised to be just as heady—and longer lasting—than in 1995.
[I can only imagine what it felt like in the 1960s and ‘70s, lording over the college basketball landscape for over a decade. Sure, that was before Magic and Bird, before Jordan, before Jimmie V. and Villanova, before the term "March Madness," ESPN, and office pools made the tourney a requisite part of the popular culture, but still—it must have been amazing.]
So on that April night in 2006, UCLA seemed ready. LSU had been dispatched, and the Bruins were peaking at the perfect time. Life was good, verging on ideal.
After Noah, Horford, and Brewer dismantled UCLA, after someone named Lee Humphrey had outplayed Arron Afflalo, and Billy Donovan (gulp) had out-coached Howland, it was clear that altitude sickness had kicked in with the summit in sight.
Ditto April, 2007. Same result, same feeling. A great season, but an imperfect ending. The Gators and their fans stood at the pinnacle, not UCLA.
[Salt in the wound: Instead of classy TV crowd shots of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Ed O'Bannon, and maybe a satellite uplink to Coach Wooden, we were treated to another year of ad nauseum quick camera cuts to 1980s tennis star/French rapper/proud papa Yannick Noah in a tight Euro t-shirt, shades on, screaming into the night. Not exactly misty-eyed, Hoosiers-type stuff.]
But that's in the past. With the 2007-2008 season having gotten underway for real, and the CBE Classic semi-finals in Kansas City, confidence is high in Westwood.
Sky high, in fact. My recent poll of a group of usually cynical UCLA fans about the Bruins' prospects this year yielded email responses like: "Final Four or Bust," "I've already got my reservations in San Antonio," and "Undefeated. It could happen. Howland teams never phone one in." And so forth.
That was before the first exhibition game.
Hubris? Well, two hours later, after the rash of injuries, I officially downgraded my view of the season to "cautiously optimistic." In fact, it looked like Affalo's early entry into the League, and our failure to sign another guard in the 2007 class, was going to be as problematic as I'd feared.
But time heals all wounds, including medial collateral ligaments.
So I'm choosing to regard Azusa Pacific as a speed bump, and not a bad omen. Sure, the injury caveat may lurk in the background all season, but the same can be said of every team with high hopes.
No, too many signs are pointing toward this 2007-08 season as being potentially epic, and cementing Ben Howland's UCLA teams on the short list of the top few, if not the best program in the country—now, and for the near future.
Think about the good omens:
1. UCLA's Banner 12 Kryptonite—the Florida Gators—have mercifully cycled out of college hoops onto a lottery team near you.
2. The Bruins add Kevin Love. [Side note I: Can this guy be for real? It's like he's channeling Derek Jeter circa 1996: super talented, humble, great with the media, never loses. An 18-year old kid calling John Wooden just to chat, talking about "Mr. Jabbar & Mr. Walton," praising his opponents with such sincerity that I start to believe it, (Hmm…maybe I have been a little judgmental about OJ Mayo), all with just the right, occasional pinch of cockiness that makes one remember he just beat your team—again. Seriously, did some Bruin alum in the film business just CGI this kid into existence? I wouldn't even swallow half of his act, except that everyone who knows the kid says it's genuine, that he seems to intuit more about how to be a great teammate, a great guy, and a great interview, than guys twice his age.]
3. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya, the Cameroon Connection, are back with all of their intangibles, and fresh from the feel-good story of a trip home to Africa, complete with an inspirational spurring of Cameroon toward an Olympic berth. [Side note II: I'm now convinced that every story about Luc and/or Alfred is officially a Feel-Good Story. I don't even think any other kind of story on them should even be attempted.] And despite the early returns of Luc at the three, I'm going to go Pollyanna on this one and figure that Howland will either get him back to the four, or help him figure out the three much better (the former seems more likely).
4. Ben Howland remains in Westwood. To me, this is the biggie. Call me a Kool Aid-drinker, but this guy just has it. The LA Times' interview on Nov. 1st with new assistant coach Scott Duncan was great: Duncan sang Howland's praises, and essentially said Ben is the Bill Belichick of college hoops. Reassuring, if not revelatory, that Coach Howland is the ideal steward for this program.
5. All of these good omens are occurring in "The Year" for the Pac-10. National interest has never been higher. Most magazines and pundits have at least six Pac-10 squads in their top 25, and are ranking the Pac as the nation's best conference. ESPN is ratcheting up their coverage with a football-style College GameDay for hoops, which includes a trip to Pauley for the Trojans game. And O.J. Mayo's marketing stop at SC provides the national media with the neat, ready-made storyline of Love vs. Mayo—simplistic storylines always being a boon when trying to get more TV love. Yet in this potentially magical type of year for the Pac-10, nobody looks to have the personnel and coaching that UCLA does.
That's a lot of good omens—too many to ignore.
The backcourt depth question is real, of course. And it remains to be seen who will take up Afflalo's mantle as team leader, and crunch-time shooter. Collison? Shipp? Love? By committee? And the downside of this feeling like The Year, is the pressure and expectations that come with it. There's not much margin for error—Collison, Love and Mata (and more?) will not be back next year, in all likelihood. The players and staff know it. And that can subtly weigh on a team.
Or it can make them gel. And Ben Howland-coached teams have come through in the clutch too many times now in the past two seasons to get the jitters now. There's a reason his Bruins keep winning close, tough games. And I'm predicting that this year will be more of the same: Pac-10 championship, high seed, and deep march through the tournament.
Florida, last year, dealt with even greater pressure and expectations, and came through brilliantly.
Why not UCLA?
After our Final Four runs the past two years ended just shy of a title, with little to show in the way of hardware—because at UCLA (and this is probably the coolest thing about Bruin sports) they only hang banners—it just feels like the year that everything will click into place.
There are questions, yes. Every team has them. But the Bruins have less of them. Plus, they have Howland, Collison, Love, Shipp, and Luc. And the other teams don't.
Biased? Of course. I'm a fan.
But still….I'm planning on a trip to San Antonio this coming April. With the return flight on Tuesday, after a night of celebrating.
This is the year.