The Power Shift in the Pac-10

Basketball columnist Kennedy Cosgrove recognizes that, when UCLA won its sixth game in a row against Arizona last Saturday, it's safe to say that the power shift in the Pac-10 is complete. Dominating them, and doing it without much of a struggle, only further emphasized it...

Which was more enjoyable for UCLA fans on Saturday? Reveling in ESPN GameDay coming to Pauley Pavilion, and broadcasting a daylong, hi-def Love letter to All Things Bruin? Or realizing during the blowout of Arizona that the Bruins were having so much fun, that the game had become so easy, that they were laughing?

That's right. Laughing.

Some context: UCLA had already humbled its proud rival, Arizona, by sweeping them the past two seasons, five consecutive games. The rivalry, two decades long and mostly in Arizona's favor, had definitely tilted UCLA's way.

From the GameDay preview -- which was all about Wooden, Westwood, and Why the Bruins might be the best team in the country -- to the game itself, the attention was predictably focused on UCLA, a comfortable favorite and marquee player.

But as Saturday's game rolled on, and the shellacking worsened, what the Bruins did to the Wildcats on prime time, on national TV…that was embarrassing.

The mismatch in microcosm: UCLA's dynamic 6-foot-3 Russell Westbrook repeatedly attacked 6-foot-8 Chase Budinger, who is overhyped and under-competitive, and who has a habit of disappearing against UCLA. As Westbrook (underappreciated and under-recruited in high school, a last-minute add on in 2006), scored over uber-prospect Budinger with a variety of moves, one could see him chuckling, enjoying it with his teammates. It wasn't quite disdain, as much as unconcern, that Westbrook and the Bruins were showing toward Budinger and the Wildcats.

Tough to blame them. One had only to look at the body language of the two teams: UCLA, superior and knowing it, as they carved up the Arizona defense, and jammed up its offense; The Wildcats, frustrated and shell-shocked, wore grim looks on their faces and a pronounced slump of their collective shoulders. What resolve they had was quickly sucked out of them. And when, in the second half, UCLA's Kevin Love, all 6-foot-10, 270 pounds of him, faked a three pointer and got by his man… and lumbered with sun-dial speed the length of the baseline…and no demoralized Wildcat would step in and get in his way…and Love looked around like he couldn't believe it…and…finally…cruised in for the dunk…nutshell, baby.

UCLA laughed some more, and Arizona players avoided eye contact and stared at the Pauley floor as they trudged up the court.

But let's go macro for a second. Big picture time. Because for a majority of the past two decades, the roles of these two programs had been reversed from what the nation saw on Saturday.

From 1987 to 2005, UCLA went 13-25 against Arizona, as the Wildcats handed out many beat-downs, Cypress Hill style, in the Tucson desert. (Even in Coach Ben Howland's first season, 2003-2004, UCLA lost to Arizona by 25 at home, and by 24 on the road.) A big part of Arizona's reputation, I would posit, was built around this fact: That it had supplanted the Bruins as the Western hoops power, winning two of every three against UCLA, with all of those nationally-televised blowouts.

Arizona won a national title (1997), and made three other Final Fours during that time, and they became the glamour program in the West -- consistent winners, NBA-talent factory, overseen by the dapper, silver-coiffed Hall of Fame coach, Lute Olson.

But now? Well, there are paradigm shifts, and then there are absolute 180-degree turns.

In the course of four seasons, UCLA has upended not only the Pac-10 as a whole, but, crucially, gotten into Arizona's head. Let's be honest here. UCLA now takes the floor against Arizona knowing it's going to win. And the Wildcats, it must be said, seem to freeze up when they see the Bruin blue and gold come out of the tunnel, at least for these past three seasons.

So what happened?

First, five years ago, the Bruins hired Coach Howland, arguably the best coach in the game, who changed the tenor of West Coast basketball by insisting on tough, physical, man-to-man defense -- and only man-to-man defense -- at all times. There would be no zone defense, no taking possessions off, no conserving one's energy for offense. And he would recruit only guys who would buy into that. There are other factors, too, but that is the central tenet at UCLA these days, for role player and star alike: Defense first.

Second, Arizona stopped being Arizona. The tipping point in this transformation was its historic collapse against Illinois in the 2005 Elite Eight -- Lute's last, best chance at a Final Four. But, to me, that was just a symptom of the larger problem. Arizona had stopped recruiting the glue guys, the team-first role players (remember Steve Kerr? Matt Muelbach? Eugene Edgerson? Luke Walton?) that played the game the right way (i.e., they won a lot) -- and started sprinkling in a lot of really talented knuckleheads. Gradually, then suddenly, its team was mostly composed of me-first guys, who were thinking of college as getting ready for the NBA. And it seemed Olson's coaching staff shifted from trusted, career-grinder assistants to a bunch of young, former players, sitting beside the Hall of Fame coach. Even though we have no real insight into the coaching acumen of Arizona's assistants, it's plain that Arizona's coaching had diminished. Whether that was his assistants, or Olson himself, who knows? And all of that meant that the culture of the Wildcat program had changed. And Arizona started losing -- not so much that the Wildcats wouldn't make the NCAA tournament, but enough that they weren't really that relevant anymore. Enough so that they started to accept it.

Personally, I trace the Bruins-Wildcats role reversal to January 15th, 2005. UCLA at Arizona. The Bruins were unranked, composed mostly of freshmen like Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp -- Howland's first recruits. The Wildcats were a top-10 team, looking like a good bet for the Final Four. On paper, no contest.

Except, it was a contest. A brawl, actually. Because, led by Farmar and Afflalo, the Bruins suddenly looked very different from recent UCLA teams who ventured timidly into Tucson. These young Bruins looked unafraid.

Surprisingly, they scrapped and clawed, and took a superior Arizona team to the wire. Down three with a few seconds left, the precocious Afflalo icily drained a three-pointer from the corner to tie it. The McKale Center crowd was stunned. It took a ridiculous shot, Salim Stoudamire's 25-foot three-pointer over Afflalo at the buzzer to win the game for Arizona. But it was relief for Arizona more than exultation. Afflalo, despondent and teary, took the loss as hard as a senior playing his last game at the Final Four. And somehow, you knew. Something had shifted. This was the makeup of a team you wanted to root for.

The next year 2006, UCLA's team -- despite being mostly freshmen and sophomores -- broke through and won at Arizona for the first time in nine years. Then the Bruins beat the Wildcats at Pauley, and it wasn't close. Then, another blowout in the Pac-10 tournament, and suddenly it was three in a row, and the tide had turned, and both teams knew it. Lute looked angry, stomping on the sideline, then chagrined, and in a post-game interview, sounded almost resigned to a new Pac-10 pecking order.

Last year, two more comfortable UCLA wins over the Wildcats. Five in a row. Arizona didn't seem that threatening, actually. Washington State, Stanford, USC, Oregon -- all were tougher opponents.

But, interestingly, when ESPN picked a UCLA home game to broadcast, they picked Arizona. Reputations die hard, after all.

And when 8 a.m. rolled around Saturday, the ESPN commentators sat in Pauley with the UCLA band, and the Bruin student section, The Den, cheering loudly behind them. The UCLA cheerleaders, impossibly shiny and perky for such an early hour, cartwheeled around the set, and UCLA's 11 national championship banners were lit up in the rafters. It was a blue-and-gold slobfest. And this fan won't pretend for a second that I didn't eat it up.

ESPN showed Bill Walton, hyperbolic as always, who told the story of his recruiting visit to Pauley ("A church! A temple! The Mecca of all of college basketball!"), watching Lew Alcindor's last home game and knowing he wanted to continue that legacy. Highlights of Coach John Wooden and the Bruin championship squads flashed by. Digger Phelps likened Pauley to Yankee Stadium, and the Bruins' uniforms to the Yankee pinstripes. Jay Bilas noted that at Pauley, "This is hallowed ground…You look up at the rafters and you see only national championship banners. There's no Pac-10 banners, no Final Four banners, no retired jerseys. UCLA is all about national championships….It's the only place in America that is like that." You know, I've always liked Mr. Bilas.

On to the game itself, which Arizona actually led, 5-4, for a brief moment. But the tone was soon clear. UCLA was shooting layups and free throws, and Arizona was forced into contested jump shots, or turnovers. UCLA put on a quick 15-1 blitz and, frankly, the game was over, seven minutes in. Seriously. Did anyone -- including the Arizona players -- really believe the Wildcats could overcome a 13-point deficit in Pauley, with the Bruins "going all UCLA on them?"

The rest of the game was an inexorable stretching out of the lead -- 20 points at halftime, as UCLA jogged off the court to a standing ovation. Then, in the second half, 25 points, 30. At one point, the Bruins were up by 32 against once-proud Arizona. Ludicrous.

Some notes on the players:

I'm starting to run out of superlatives for Love. He's the best player in the Pac-10, and I'm not sure, based on his play during the conference season, that it's actually very close. Brook Lopez of Stanford is in the discussion, of course. Maybe Washington's Jon Brockman. UCLA point guard Darren Collison has really come on, and is playing at a very high level. But unless something changes drastically, I'd expect Love to win the Pac-10 Player of the Year award.

Love's numbers are amazing, and he put up his routine double-double on Saturday. But don't just look at his 26 points and 11 rebounds. Check out the production of the guy he guards -- because this too is becoming a pattern. Love's opposite, Arizona big man Jordan Hill, picked up two quick fouls, and finished with eight points and four rebounds. (On Thursday, against Arizona State, Love had 20 points, 10 rebounds; ASU post Jeff Pendergraph? Six points, two rebounds.)

Westbrook was superb, hitting a career-high 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting, and along with Collison (12 points, 7 assists, 1 turnover), played stellar perimeter defense. Repeatedly, Arizona had trouble just initiating the offense, as Collison and Westbrook harassed their ballhandlers 25 feet away from the basket.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute played excellent defense against Budinger, and -- this being UCLA in 2007-08 -- was the Bruin that drew the short straw and suffered the seemingly requisite weekly injury (sprained ankle). He will miss this weekend's Washington swing.

But that was about the only downer on one of those weekends for fans to just sit back and appreciate. Last Thursday's 84-51 demolition of Arizona State set the tone, and the high-profile Saturday masterpiece against their rival was the coup de grace.

Yes, there was a lot to revel in last weekend. Maybe the most important: UCLA continued its evolution toward the team it intends to be in March, when the real season gets underway. And right now, especially after these two blowouts, it seems as if these Bruins, when healthy and locked in, may have a gear that the other elite teams, even Memphis, Kansas, North Carolina or Duke, might not possess.

On to Pullman.


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