LOS ANGELES – They hauled out the ladders, brought out the scissors, and for the UCLA basketball team the net-cutting commenced. The ritual could continue for the Bruins until they snip nylon in San Antonio, site of the Final Four and national championship game.
On the face of it, a 67-64 victory over Stanford in the Pac-10 tournament might seem insufficient reason to declare the Bruins top contenders for the national title. But the Bruins did more than win a game here Saturday at the Staples Center.
They proved they can overcome adversity, and that they're even deeper and more talented than some suspected. Suspicions, understandably, were aroused Friday night.
A shudder rippled through UCLA fans when one of the Bruins' most integral players, forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, crumpled to the floor early in the game. Two players had to carry him off the court, and a badly sprained ankle left Mbah a Moute in pain and on crutches after the game. Never mind the pulsating victory over USC that followed. Some of the Bruins expressed doubt as to whether they could win the national title without Mbah a Moute.
The Bruins had to wait only until Saturday to determine the significance of Mbah a Moute's absence. If any team is capable of exploiting a depleted frontline, it's Stanford, with its 7-foot twins Brook and Robin Lopez. And so the test came. A very stern test.
The Cardinal bolted to an 11-4 lead, extended the lead to seven again shortly thereafter, but that was only the beginning of the Bruins' concerns. Kevin Love grimaced and grabbed his back. It was a mysterious muscle pull that sent UCLA's star center to the bench.
Even when Love returned, he was noticeably limited. The Lopez twins left Love seeing double, and the freshman finished the first half with only three points. The Bruins trailed by as many as seven points before tying the score at 32 by the intermission. Almost as disconcerting for the Bruins, they had made only one of 10 free throws.
Though he didn't say as much, it's exactly what coach Ben Howland needed to see: how the Bruins responded when they were overmatched inside, out of sync from the free-throw line and missing a player who helps anchor the starting lineup. And here is what he saw:
• Darren Collison, UCLA's lightning-quick point guard, conjured up images of Curly Neal, dribbling between, around and through the Cardinal on his way to a game-high 28 points.
• Russell Westbook, Collison's backcourt mate, and swingman Josh Shipp, collected 20 rebounds combined – six more than the Lopez twins managed.
• James Keefe, the seldom-used forward who was supposed to redshirt this season, filled in admirably for Mbah a Moute for the second straight night.
• Love played through back pain and looked far more effective in the second half on his way to 12 points and six rebounds.
So when the Bruins finished off Stanford, and when they climbed up the ladders and cut down the nets, it was easy to imagine them doing it again at the Final Four after doing what has eluded them since 1995 – winning a national championship.
Under Howland's watch, the Bruins have been close, reaching the championship game in 2006 and the semifinals in 2007, only to lose to Florida both times. To some the championship might seem inevitable with the regular trips to the Final Four. But in the foreseeable future, the Bruins might have no better time to do what they've only done once since John Wooden guided UCLA to 10 national championships.
Love, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, is expected to declare for the NBA draft.
Collison, who played 40 minutes in three straight games in the Pac-10 tournament without committing a turnover, might follow Love as his own stock rises.
With the victory, Howland said he thinks the Bruins "cemented" the No. 1 seed in the West, and we'll soon find out if the selection committee agrees. What's more, Howland said he thinks this is the best team he's had since arriving at UCLA five years ago.
During his postgame news conference, Stanford coach Trent Johnson referred to the Bruins as "arguably the best team in the country." Here's why the argument gets even stronger:
• Mbah a Moute, it turns out, could be ready to play as early as Thursday.
• With the No. 1 seed in the West, the Bruins would have a favorable road to the Final Four.
The road would start in Anaheim, site of the first- and second-round games. It would continue in Phoenix, the site of the West Regional. And then it'd be on to San Antonio and the Alamodome. But in some respects, UCLA's road to the Final Four started here Saturday, when the Bruins held off 11th-ranked Stanford and improved their record to 31-3.
After the game, when Howland agreed this might be his best team yet, he listed the key traits: moxie, poise and toughness. Don't forget ambition.
"We want to win the big prize," Collison said.
With six more victories, the big prize would be within reach. All the Bruins would have to do then is scale the ladders and cut down the nets.