Breathless Bruins Under-Appreciated

Basketball columnist Kennedy Cosgrove asserts, no matter how they finish it, the 2007-2008 UCLA Bruins have given us a season that is seemingly being under-appreciated, with its comeback wins, last-minute heroics, 33-3 record, and the one season of a once-in-a-generation player like Kevin Love...

Each breathless game, as UCLA Coach Ben Howland, point guard Darren Collison, and freshman superstar Kevin Love keep applying the defibrillator paddles and shocking their team out of its basketball flatline -- back to life, just in time to pull out another last-second victory -- this Bruin squad is carving out an increasingly special corner in UCLA history.

No, this team hasn't yet won a national championship. And it might not.

No, it hasn't made the Final Four, yet. And it might not.

UCLA could even lose to Western Kentucky tonight in the Sweet 16 (though I think they won't).

But as the Bruins gasp and claw their way closer to their stated goal of a third-straight Final Four and, Wooden willing, the National Championship, it's worth noting that no championship favorite that I can remember has needed this much heart just to keep surviving. Six of UCLA's eight games in March have come down to last-second plays, and UCLA was won all six.

"When the time clock says zero-zero, that's when we'll stop playing," said Collison after Saturday's 51-49 win over Texas A&M in a brutal second-round NCAA Tournament game. There has been some variation of this quote after virtually every recent game. Whatever the phrases -- "Never quit," "Just know how to win," "Keep fighting," etc. -- it would be getting almost monotonous if it weren't so unbelievably exciting.

In fact, what the Bruins have done over the past month, well, it's hard to even think of a precedent for it. Most teams that string together a series of improbable comebacks -- think the Boston Red Sox in 2003, North Carolina State in 1983, U.S.A. Hockey in 1980, or uber-nerd Fogell in the movie Superbad buying booze with a fake ID that reads, simply, "McLovin," and saving the party at the end -- are underdogs. Usually big underdogs.

UCLA is the rare heavy favorite (Pac-10 champion, No. 1 seed) that keeps thrusting the other guys into the Goliath role, and then pulling a David. This is reverse psychology, high drama, and frankly, while by now predictable, it's almost confusing.

How is the Bruin fan supposed to feel, exactly, as these heart-stoppers keep piling up? Inspired? Incredulous? Or like my friend Mike, who looked to be in near-physical pain throughout the Texas A&M game on Saturday -- somewhat miserable with all that tension?

D. All of the above, I guess.

Bruin fans know how much of America probably feels -- "Everybody hates UCLA now," Love admitted -- after another Bruin victory coincided with a last-second referee's decision (this time Josh Shipp's block on Donald Sloan's drive to the basket that maybe should have been a foul) that went UCLA's way.

And we know that the Bruins' most recent Great Escape, against Texas A&M, a tough but enigmatic No. 9 seed, was pulled out (again) by the Bruins' stars, Love and Collison.

A couple of things made this one special. One, it was the tournament: Lose and you go home. Two, Love and Collison won this game with very little production from their teammates. Shipp went scoreless, suffering from strep throat and jump-shot hypothermia. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, clearly feeling the effects of his sprained ankle, scored two points and had six turnovers (though he did gut out eight rebounds in 32 minutes). And Russell Westbrook, normally an offensive sparkplug, did not score until only eight minutes remained in the game, and finished with only five points.

No, this game was all about UCLA's Big Two.

Let's start with Collison. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas has continually called Collison "the best point guard in America" all season. Other analysts have favored Texas phenom D.J. Augustin, who outplayed a rusty Collison in his first game back from injury in December, but Collison is making Bilas look increasingly accurate. It wasn't until late January that the junior really started looking like his old self, but in March, when reputations are really made, Collison has taken his game to another level. He twice destroyed Stanford -- first (24 points, four assists) to clinch the conference regular-season title in an epic game at Pauley Pavilion, then again a week later (28 points, three assists, no turnovers) to win the Conference tournament.

He is not a classic pass-first point guard with great vision, and smooth on the fast break. But he is maybe the quickest player in America, pretty fearless, and a defensive disruptor, with the ability to get up in his opponent's grill like a drill instructor screaming at some poor recruit in boot camp. His awkward-looking but sweet jump shot has been dialed in (an otherworldly 62.5% from three-point range over the past month), and he has become a ridiculous free-throw shooter (87.6%, and memorably clutch in late-game situations). And he is really, really hard to turn over.

Against the Aggies, Collison single-handedly kept the Bruins in the game in the first half, scoring 14 points and hitting all four of his three-point shots. And in the final minute of the game, he used two ball screens by Love to free himself up to drive to the basket, each time hitting a huge layup."Vintage Darren Collison," said Howland. The last one, with only nine seconds left, was the winning basket.

But as great as Collison was, Love was even better this game. He had a strong first half with eight points, but a crazy second half, where he suddenly morphed into Alonzo Mourning, with seven blocked shots. I'm sorry -- seven blocked shots in one half, playing against a tall front line? What can't this guy do?

And in the final two minutes, Love hit two really tough turnaround jump shots, the first to tie the game at 45-all, the next to give the Bruins a 47-45 lead with 1:35 to play. That last one -- two dribbles left, spin right, fallaway jumper -- was a move that I hadn't seen Love make all season; He later said this was one of this go-to moves in high school. To unearth a Lake Oswego Special, with less than two minutes left in a tournament game, tied and staring down elimination? And then to swish it? You start to run out of superlatives.

And make no mistake; this kid is a great player. ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, in a widely-read (by Bruin fans) and much-praised column on UCLA last week, noted that Love might become the most polarizing NBA draft prospect of the past decade. With probably as many people focusing on the things Love lacks -- a chiseled physique, explosive hops, a smooth gait -- as seeing his many gifts, and overall dominance. [Simmons, it should be noted, loves Kevin's game, and is very much in the Pro-Love-as-a-pro Camp.]

And while Love has piled up the accolades, I've been surprised by how many people, including passionate UCLA fans, continue to strangely undervalue the player Love is -- despite all the evidence staring them directly in the face.

Love's passing, his smooth scoring from inside and outside (36% on three-pointers), ability to draw fouls, free-throw shooting, his toughness and physicality, his knack for clutch plays…the list of things he does that help his team win is long.

And some things on that list are subtler. For example, it's become increasingly evident that Love is a Human Four-Point Swing. How many times this season has he snagged a difficult defensive rebound (often surrounded by opposing post players, who look like they're about to get the offensive board and get an easy layup or dunk), then fired an outlet pass to a teammate for an easy bucket? Maybe two or three of those sequences in a game, especially in these tight games? Those are like 8 to 12 point reversals. Gigantic.

Plus, the more I watch Love, the more awed I am by his defensive rebounding ability. He has the best hands I can remember since Chris Webber of Michigan, in the early 1990s. If the ball is loose inside, Love's getting it, seemingly 8 or 9 times out of ten. It's uncanny.

And all season, Love has played against guys that he will likely square off against in the NBA: Robin Lopez, Brook Lopez (who in three games against Love, has shot 18 of 50, and has lost all three games), DeVon Hardin, Aron Baynes, the list goes on. Love is almost invariably outplaying them, in some cases, dominating them, and, oh yeah! His team wins.

The latest victims? Two Aggie centers: Seven-foot, 255-pound DeAndre Jordan (a projected NBA lottery pick), and 6-9, 255 Joseph Jones.

Jordan: 6 points, 4 rebounds, zero blocks. Jones: 6 points, 6 rebounds, one block.

Love: 19 points, 11 boards, seven blocks. Two clutch buckets, and the win.

But because Love isn't the prototypical-looking center, it's like this stuff counts less somehow. Not that I care overly much about the NBA, but some people opine that Love won't be able to guard future NBA Hall of Famers like Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, or athletic freaks like Amare Stoudamire or Dwight Howard. [Oh really? And who, exactly, has guarded those guys?] And it's said as if it diminishes what Love is accomplishing right now, as a college freshman.

I will say it one final time: I just don't get it.

Love, to me, is the best player in America right now. And while Kansas State's Michael Beasley and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough look to snag a lot of national individual awards, I would not trade Love for either player.

Back to the team. For the third straight year, the Bruins survived a highly difficult second-round game (Alabama in 2006, Indiana in 2007), and moved on to the regionals. Western Kentucky, a 12-seed, awaits them in Phoenix. If it wins, UCLA faces either Xavier or West Virginia, for a trip to San Antonio.

And if there's one thing the Bruins have proved, there will be no easy games anymore. I want to echo conventional wisdom, that Shipp needs to get untracked (he does), Luc needs to get healthy (absolutely), and we need to stop totally relying on Love and Collison. Except not much about this season has been conventional, so figuring out what happens from here is probably an exercise in futility.

But this seems safe to say: I've found this whole campaign, in which UCLA at times looks like the favorite to win Banner 12, at others like it's inches away from unraveling, to be probably the most fascinating, nerve-wracking, and special Bruin season in many years. And for a sports fan who knows that this stuff is pretty rare, it's something to appreciate.


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