"We're going to lose this one," I say, to whomever's listening. "We don't have it tonight."
It might be during the late first half, or the early second half, even late in the game. I said it against Michigan State, against Oregon (twice!), Stanford, and Cal. And I really believed it, each time.
Each time, the Bruins won.
So in this past weekend's Pac-10 tournament, as UCLA fell behind USC in the semi-finals, and behind Stanford in the championship -- having a healthy respect for superstition, and never being one to say "Screw hubris" -- I didn't break with tradition.
"We don't have it today," I said aloud.
But actually, both times, I didn't really believe that. It was pro forma worrying, because I believed that the Bruins were going to win.
And they did, outplaying the Trojans and the Cardinal (all together now) down the stretch, both times surviving a last-second, missed three-point attempt to win by three points.
Yes, the wins gave UCLA the Conference Double (regular-season title and conference championship), silenced most of the "lucky UCLA" talk from the previous weekend's comebacks against Stanford and Cal, and eliminated any lingering shred of doubt about UCLA deserving the Number 1 seed in the West region of the NCAA Tournament.
But to me, it seemed like something more took place. The lull from late February to early March was officially over. The Bruins had regained that look in their eye, the look that said it's money time, the time when legacies are forged, history is made, and championships are won.
As the Notorious B.I.G. sang, "Recognize a real Don/When you see one."
At the risk of overconfidence, I'm recognizing, baby. This team has always been legit, but the hopes, the predictions that they're something special… it's being realized.
The last time I felt this good about a Bruin team might have been two years ago, March of 2006, when things really jelled during the final weekend of the regular season. UCLA made a great comeback at Cal to win in overtime, blew out Stanford in Maple Pavilion to win its first Pac-10 title under Coach Ben Howland, and then stormed through the Pac-10 Tournament with three convincing wins to snatch a No. 2 seed in the West. Howland's first Final Four trip followed immediately after.
But on further reflection, I have to go further back to get a similar feeling. Back to 1995, when the top-ranked, top-seeded Bruins of Ed O'Bannon and Tyus Edney entered the tournament as a big favorite, looking nearly unbeatable, a team on a mission -- and UCLA ended up winning it all and hoisting the Bruins' 11th national championship banner.
Things are looking kind of similar right now. Ranked second in the country, with the coveted No. 1 seed in the West region (and games in Anaheim and Phoenix if the Bruins advance), in a bracket tailor-made for UCLA, with pundits far and wide predicting UCLA will advance to the Final Four with the ease of a Google search, and a lot of smart money is on the Bruins taking home Banner Twelve.
Yeah, it all looks pretty perfect.
And that's what worries me.
A great setup going into a sports playoff is like a swimsuit model about to get into a debate -- you just kind of know there's trouble ahead. Just ask the New England Patriots.
Or better yet, let's take a look at the 1995 UCLA basketball team, the last Bruin squad to win the national title. Yes, everyone who follows this stuff remembers not only the heroic performance by Ed O'Bannon, Toby Bailey and Cameron Dollar (filling in for the injured Edney) in the title game. And no one can forget Edney's 4.8-second, full-court dribble drive and basket at the buzzer to beat Missouri in the second-round game. It's one of the greatest plays in the history of the NCAA tournament, and earned Edney a deserved place in March Madness lore. [Don't worry, you'll see it plenty of times in highlight promos in the next few weeks.]
But here's what easily forgotten in reliving the glory of that moment. For the previous few minutes, during the timeout before Edney's one shining moment, when it dawned on me (and probably most UCLA fans) that the dream of winning the national championship, that the season of destiny, was barring a miracle, O.V.E.R.-- that was absolutely a brutal feeling. Intensely frustrating. Hollow. Almost unfair. UCLA was the best team in the country and had been all year, all the pieces were in place, and the window to win it all would be closed after that season (O'Bannon and Edney were seniors) -- which would be over in another 4.8 seconds.
Well, Edney provided a miracle, the window stayed open, and everyone knows the rest. So all's well that ends well, but that season so easily could have gone down like the 1998 football season—unfulfilled, tragic (in a fandom sense), an immediate buzzkill whenever it's mentioned.
It was a different vibe in 2006, when UCLA snuck up on people, started playing such inspired ball on that last weekend of the regular season (who can forget Ryan Hollins's out-of-nowhere, Banner-to-Hulk transformation), and went on a brilliant run to the national championship game. But even then, as pre-tourney hopes and expectations started getting jacked up after the Pac-10 title, and the Bruins went into their Sweet 16 clash against Adam Morrison's Gonzaga and essentially were getting blown out for most of the game… remember that feeling? Like picking up your beer at a party, taking a swig, and wait, it's someone's chewing tobacco spit cup. Nauseating.
Well, one bizarre, miraculous comeback later, the Bruins are celebrating wildly, Adam Morrison is crying, and all the potential heartache is forgotten, washed away by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's layup and subsequent diving steal to ice the game.
Again, though, a hairsbreadth away from that year being ultimately forgettable and disappointing.
But now, 2008, expectations are even greater, about on a par with 1995, and an urgency that This Is The Year has hung over this team all season -- likely from the players' perspective; certainly, from a fan's vantage point.
But I'll get back to that.
A great psychologist once said that human beings are the only animals that can think about the future; indeed, that our brains are "future-making machines" with our ability to prospect, look ahead, and dream or worry. The popularity of recruiting-as-spectator sport only confirms that sports fans are even better than their fellow humans at this.
All well and good, and usually pretty fun, but sometimes the present gets conveniently ignored in our obsession about the future. So in the interest of living in the moment, let's focus for a bit on this past weekend: The Pac-10 Tournament.
Count me in as someone who is glad that the Pac-10 reinstituted the conference tournament a few years back. I think it's great. It keeps the Pac-10 up with the basketball Joneses (read: the ACC and Big East, who for years have staged wildly popular conference tourneys). It gives Pac-10 teams much more exposure on a huge sports weekend; plus it's kind of a dry-run, Win-or-Go-Home tournament setting, without the irrevocability of the Big Dance. And in UCLA's case, it's not clear that winning it was totally necessary to ensure that top seed, but it didn't hurt.
The first game, Thursday, was fittingly against Cal. The Bruins essentially committed larceny against the Golden Bears the previous weekend in stealing that memorable game at Pauley Pavilion, winning when Josh Shipp channeled Larry Bird (ever thought you'd read that phrase?) with an over the backboard H-O-R-S-E shot with 1.5 seconds left to win by a single point.
"Lucky!" screamed the talking heads. "Illegal! Unfair!" yelled Cal. "Conspiracy!" cried the message boards in Berkeley, Palo Alto, Lawrence, Durham, and Chapel Hill.
The Bruins played like they heard all the talk, and were a bit irritated. In the rematch, they quashed any revenge fantasies that Cal may have had, leading by 14 at the half, and opened the second half with Kevin Love hitting three consecutive three-pointers. Ballgame. At one point, they extended the lead to 32 points. Message sent, and received.
[A quick note: Lorenzo Mata-Real had arguably his best game of the season, with eight points and three big blocked shots in the first half, when the Bruins were struggling a bit and Love had two fouls. It was a nice moment for Mata-Real, a starting center on back-to-back Final Four teams, whose starting job and most of his playing time -- in this, his senior year -- was ceded to Love upon the freshman's arrival in Westwood. Love is a superstar, Mata-Real is not, and transcendent talent trumps hard work and scrappiness, so the move was never even questioned, but Mata-Real has handled it all beyond gracefully. He has not complained, and continued to play as hard and tough as ever. It's this part of the team culture that Howland has ingrained at UCLA that doesn't show up on stat sheets, but is absolutely a vital part of the Bruins' success the past few years. Talking about team and selflessness is pretty easy. Exhibiting it like Mata-Real is a lot harder. Kudos.]
Next up was USC, the Bruins' toughest Pac-10 matchup the past two seasons. It was another dogfight. Mbah a Moute sprained his ankle in the first half (and would miss the rest of the weekend), and the Bruins looked a bit listless, but crucially stayed within striking distance, down only six at halftime.
UCLA opened the second half with a 15-2 run, playing some of their best basketball of the season. Love scored 11 of the 15 points and showed why he is the Pac-10 Player of the Year, with two and-one layups and then a three pointer. After the trey, SC called a timeout, the Bruin bench was woofing, and on his way to the huddle, Love capped his bravura sequence by elevating pretty well for a surprisingly stylish chest bump (a Love tap?) with high-flier Russell Westbrook.
[Westbrook, it should be noted, again played excellent defense on Trojan star O.J. Mayo; and again at times in this marquee matchup, was little too jacked up and overexcited, which I pointed out to my buddy Gip, who replied, "Russell is 19 years old and carves stuff in his ‘fro." Point taken.]
Regardless, UCLA spent the remainder of the game almost pulling away into double-digit leads, but never quite getting there. Still, they battled, and scrapped and eventually held off the Trojans, 57-54.
The unsung hero of this game: reserve forward James Keefe, who played 23 minutes in Mbah a Moute's place. His stats won't show it (zero points, four rebounds, two blocks) but Keefe played great -- excellent defense, crisp passes, solid screens. Like Mata-Real the game before, Keefe's play was both a big part of the team's win, and a nice moment for an unsung cog in the Bruin machine.
Onto the final against Stanford, on Saturday. Now, at this point, the Bruins have the top seed in the West locked up, Mbah a Moute is out with his injured ankle, Love quickly develops back spasms in the first half and is noticeably slowed, clutching his back in pain and having to leave the game a couple of times.
But as Howland says: "We want to win every game."
And it's this competitiveness, in situations like this, that's at the core of this season's UCLA team identity. There are no excuses, no live-to-fight-another-day mentality. There is only fight now, with everything they have.
I mean, what is the explanation for this: No Mbah a Moute and a hobbled Love, going against Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez, and UCLA fights for 21 offensive rebounds, to Stanford's five? Think about that statistic for a moment. And think about this: Bruins Shipp (6-foot-5) and Westbrook (6-foot-3) combined for 20 rebounds. The 7-foot Lopez twins combined for just 14.
Still, the real question was whose back hurt more: Love's (spasms) or Collison's (carrying the team)?
Much like he did against Stanford the previous week, UCLA's junior point guard just took over the game, getting past his man (Mitch Johnson) at will. Twenty-eight points, three assists, zero turnovers, numerous huge shots late in the shot clock. The details aren't as important as the gestalt; Collison is looking increasingly ready to prove himself on the prime time, national stage. It's time for his tourney close-up, and he knows it.
And now, the tournament is here. Collison and rest of the team have carried this weight of expectations all season.
The Tourney is a crucible, with "Survive and Advance" the popular mantra. The Bruins have done that better than anyone I've seen this season. It's why I finally started to accept that "They may not have it tonight" somehow keeps translating into wins.
And it's become increasingly clear that this team's potential greatness isn't in blowing teams out; it's in finding ways to win, against elite teams, even when things aren't going perfectly. And frankly, this season, they've rarely gone that way -- and rarely does a deep tournament run ever go according to plan, anyway.
So maybe it's all for the best. Maybe the deficits, the comebacks, the close calls, the drama, it's all serving a purpose. The next few weeks, we'll see.
As Collison put it: "This is the best team I've played on. This is all we got, and this is what we're going to go with."