Commentary

Dramatic finishes not a problem for UCLA

Originally Published: March 28, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Ben Howland is an avid movie buff, a guy who can wax poetic about just about any flick you offer.

[+] EnlargeDarren Collison
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonDarren Collison had a tough time against the Western Kentucky defense, committing four turnovers.
So the UCLA coach appreciates a good drama when he sees one.

That doesn't mean he necessarily wants to direct one.

"Well that was another exciting game for all the Bruin fans out there," Howland deadpanned after UCLA blew a 21-point lead and had to hang on against Western Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night. "I want to keep you guys awake and on the edge of your seat, so you're welcome."

Over on the other coast, North Carolina advanced to the Elite Eight on the same night as the Bruins, but the Tar Heels haven't even had to launder their unis yet. Carolina has turned the NCAA tournament into a laugher, winning its first three games by -- are you ready for it? -- 30.3 points per game. Not since the 1999 Duke team rolled by its first three opponents by an average of 33 points has the tourney seen such domination.

Here in the desert, everyone is sweating the Bruins.

Toss out the 41-point annihilation of Mississippi Valley State, which was more like a game between the Celtics and your local CYO squad, and the Bruins are winning by six points a game. They had to rally from a 10-point second-half hole against Texas A&M in the second round and blew a 21-point lead against Western Kentucky, surviving a WKU comeback after A.J. Slaughter's wide-open 3-pointer rimmed out.

"That's fine, that's cool," UCLA point guard Darren Collison said of the comparison shopping between the Bruins and Heels. "People give their opinions about who should win, who's looking like they should win, but hey, we don't know who the winner is yet. We still have to come across those teams and they still have to come across us."

The Bruins, up against No. 3 seed Xavier in the Elite Eight, are the first to admit their last two wins over Texas A&M and Western Kentucky were more like finger-painted Elvis on velvet than works of art. Collison was particularly hard on himself after reviewing his 1-for-6, four-turnover performance against Western Kentucky, vowing it won't happen again.

We haven't played our best basketball but we're surviving. That's all that matters in this tournament, winning.

--UCLA's Josh Shipp

They also, however, will remind you -- repeatedly -- that they are winning and last they checked, the NCAA didn't award bonus points for aesthetics or scoring margins.

"We haven't played our best basketball but we're surviving," Josh Shipp said. "That's all that matters in this tournament, winning."

Valid point.

But as the field is whittled daily, there are two questions people want answered: Who can win it all and who looks vulnerable? Right now the Bruins are the right answer to the wrong question.

Roll in their herky-jerky run through the Pac-10 tournament and the much-discussed regular-season win over Cal and UCLA hasn't exactly been looking like a sure thing for a while.

And based on past history, that should at the very least make the Bruins uneasy.

UCLA is trying to make its third consecutive Final Four appearance, a run that at any other school would be cause for parades and celebration.

In Westwood? Eh.

[+] EnlargeDarren Collision
Frank Victores/US PresswireUCLA says it's fine without the blowouts, preferring to play hard-nosed defense.
Even the players on this team, the ones who don't have a national championship, aren't terribly impressed by three runs to the final weekend when there's nothing to show for it.

"We're not satisfied at all," Collison said.

The Bruins are following a scary script if they want to change Final Four appearances into national championship moments. Last year, UCLA blew out Weber State in the first round, but squeaked by both Indiana (by five) and Pittsburgh (by nine) in the next two rounds. That set up a 13-point loss to Florida in the national semifinal.

Two years ago, Belmont took it on the chin in the first round to the tune of 34 points, but the Bruins again had near escapes against Alabama (by three) and Gonzaga (by two). Florida dealt them a 16-point spanking in the title game.

To be fair, UCLA isn't necessarily built for the blowout, and wasn't the past two years either. Some of Carolina's best defensive plays are taking the ball out of the basket and going the other way. The Tar Heels are speed first, defend later.

The Bruins are straight out of Big East central casting, a grind-it-out team that wins by limiting possessions, not exploiting them.

The thing is, UCLA's Elite Eight foe is built the same way. Xavier takes this business of defense seriously, so the idea of a blowout from either side seems a bit far-fetched.

"Concerned? Not at all," Collison said. "This is what it's going to be. This is the tournament. It's what everybody came to see. Obviously we'd like to blow out teams, but we're ready for a fight. To tell you the truth, I like close games as much as a blowout. You're not running from anything. You're here to fight, to play game. Every team here is ready for a fight. We are too."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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