Snap back to reality, Oh! there goes gravity -- Eminem
Last Thursday, the Bruins were riding high atop the league, beating up on Washington State in Pullman, in a tense game that had been everyone's preseason prediction for the Pac-10 game of the year, and which didn't disappoint. Three days later? UCLA was upended by ninth-place Washington on Sunday, and sent packing with a bad and semi-surreal 71-61 loss.
Hate it or love it, the underdog's on top -- 50 Cent
Now, one could argue a few points that might mitigate that Dawg Day Afternoon -- the most salient being that the Washington State game was much more important (true). Other rationalizations: The Huskies are more talented than their poor record indicates (probably true); Seattle has proven to be consistently unkind to Howland's UCLA teams (sadly true); and UW played its game of the season against the Bruins, which again missed injured forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Whatever. I know when I'm reaching for excuses. Watching that game was like a swig of orange juice after brushing your teeth. Fresh and minty just turned into a bad aftertaste.
The final surprise? UW fans did not rush the court afterward. Last year I noticed that the Bruins had become one of those select few teams, which, if you beat them, your fans rushed the court (as at Oregon, West Virginia, and Stanford). Against Washington, even that cold comfort was denied.
Welcome everybody to the Wild, Wild West -- Tupac Shakur
And given that the Bruins did not look untouchable like Elliott Ness, suddenly the Pac-10 was a real horse race, between UCLA and Stanford. Both are 9-2, tied for first, and any margin for error the Bruins possessed had shrunk after the UW loss. Their cross-town trek this weekend to USC, a rivalry game and a revenge game due to the Trojans' upset win in Pauley Pavilion a few weeks ago, became even more crucial to the conference race.
UCLA surely felt a bit more comfortable about said race after Thursday's win against the Cougars. The journey to Pullman is never easy; the Bruins tried to get a leg up by chartering a plane, avoiding both security lines and cramped coach seats. Ten hours later, after a snowstorm in Pullman, a diversion to Lewiston, Idaho, and a bus ride back to Pullman, they must have been wondering why they bothered.
But the game went better than their travel plans. Well-played by both teams, it was close throughout, until the relentlessness of the Bruins' offense down the stretch broke it open. This game never felt seriously in doubt, to me. UCLA was pretty locked in, and intense, and there have been too many of these methodical wins against good teams under Coach Howland for me to get the yips that night.
There were some obvious stars. Darren Collison scored all 18 of his points in the second half, clearly outplaying Cougar guards Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver (who also played well, though), especially in winning time. It was a continuation of a fantastic five-game stretch for Collison.
Kevin Love was contained (for him) for much of the game but still had 16 points and nine rebounds. It was his four consecutive free throws that broke open a late tie and began the sequence where UCLA pulled away from Wazzu. Love continued to frustrate opposing post players, with junior Aron Baynes getting four fouls and senior Robbie Cowgill fouling out. This pattern is now predictable for Love, but still fairly amazing for a freshman going against experienced post players, many with NBA futures.
But let's look beyond the obvious, and give credit to Josh Shipp, which I've been meaning to do for several games. Shipp has continued to impress with his refusal to force bad shots, and he has consistently played within the team concept on offense this season. Last season, he showed flashes of sublimating his game to make the team better; this season, it's almost become his standard operating procedure. He's playing better defense, making fewer turnovers, and unofficially, he passes the eyeball test in terms of playing team ball.
Credit also to James Keefe, with five points and four rebounds in only 11 minutes. He's contributing more and more, and looks increasingly comfortable on the court.
Russell Westbrook overcame a shaky start and made some big plays in the second half, both scoring and passing. He's come back to earth, overall, since his stellar January. It's still a breakout season for the sophomore.
A quick word about Washington State. I have no particular fondness for the school or its teams. In fact, their football team has broken UCLA hearts, regularly, since beating the No. 1-ranked Bruins back in 1988. But what Cougar basketball coach Tony Bennett has accomplished since taking over from his father, Dick, last season borders on miraculou -- not only in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of style. Washington State has to be considered one of the best-coached teams in the nation, by a guy in only his second season, at a historically backwater basketball school. Yes, these Cougars are a pleasure to watch, and I can pay them no higher compliment than to say they're the only Pac-10 team that has really scared me the last two seasons, and the conference opponent I most respect.
Pullman will never attract the athletes that L.A. can, and one has to figure that Bennett seems destined (soon) to move onto a larger stage, but this two-year run for Washington State hoops should go down in that school's collective sports heart as a pretty special time. Fair play to Coach Bennett and the Cougs. And, finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that he pulls off the suit/open-collared look the way John Wooden rocks a bolo tie. Smooth.
That was the plus side of the weekend. And make no mistake, beating such a good team, on its home floor, with its fans turning this one up to eleven, was no small accomplishment.
So what happened in Seattle, three days later?
Your crystal ball ain't so crystal clear -- Beastie Boys
To put it simply, UCLA didn't show up, turning in a shocking stink bomb of a performance that probably was their worst game of the year.
The particulars weren't that interesting. Shipp was the only Bruin who played with the necessary aggressiveness and verve. Collison played perhaps the worst game of his UCLA career, with eight turnovers, no points for the first 38 minutes, and got completely outplayed by his opposite, Justin Dentmon, a fairly pedestrian player. Love was held in check. Westbrook was okay, but uneven.
The surprise was how well and aggressively Washington played, their blowout by USC a few nights earlier a thing of the past.
I definitely don't think UCLA saw this one coming. It was like turning a street corner in the dark and finding a couple of thugs waiting for you. Ambush.
So what's to make of this strange two-game swing? Well, books have been written on the human need to search for meaning -- to say nothing of the postgame message board frenzy.
Here's the best I can figure out, about UCLA 2007-2008. It's a very, very good team. In many recent wins, the Bruins have looked dominant, often cruising to double-digit triumphs. In the two conference losses, they've played really poorly, coming out flat and uninspired -- though still been in both games down the stretch. Thus far, if there is a pattern, it's been four or five really good games, followed by a dud.
One key to a lengthy postseason run for most teams has been surviving that one dud. UCLA did it against Missouri in 1995; against Gonzaga in 2006, and, I would argue, against Indiana last year.
This year, the Bruins have already done it a few times as well: against Michigan State, Michigan, and Oregon -- and nearly pulled out a scrappy, ugly win against Texas.
They couldn't do it against Washington, true. But one sour note every three weeks is a pretty reasonable ratio. And if the Holy Grail for UCLA -- no injuries -- ever happens this season, maybe even those infrequent duds become close wins.