HOUSTON—UCLA should not be in the NCAA tournament at all, yet the Bruins are in the Sweet 16. This doesn’t make sense, but it is fitting anyway. We are talking about UCLA basketball, where expectations and reality rarely reside in the same zip code.
Like many fans around the country, UCLA fans expect their program to be a national power every year. Unlike many fans, they have good reasons for this. The program has won 11 national titles, it’s in one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country and the UCLA name carries historical weight and modern-day street currency. UCLA should be the North Carolina of the West.
And then you have Gonzaga, UCLA’s opponent in the Sweet 16, which arrived here in a completely different boat. Logic says Gonzaga should be struggling for attention and NCAA tournament bids in a good year, because of its location in Spokane, spot in the West Coast Conference and lack of pedigree. When the 1998-99 college basketball season began, Gonzaga had made exactly one NCAA tournament appearance. Since then, the Bulldogs have made 17 straight.
Now Gonzaga is a 9.5-point favorite over UCLA, and this doesn’t even seem weird. BUT IT IS WEIRD. Come on, people older than 20, back me up here.
In fact, the best thing going for the Bruins may be their underdog status. Most analysts figured they would be done with their NIT run by now. What do they have to lose?
Star freshman Kevon Looney admitted he and his teammates were “real nervous” on Selection Sunday. “After we got in, everything was lifted. We just wanted to play. And everybody said we weren’t supposed to be here, so we wanted to prove them wrong.”
Center Tony Parker is still a bit miffed by the shots at UCLA on Selection Sunday: “There were a lot of teams on the bubble. We were the only team on the bubble that got that kind of backlash.”
If Parker is confused, that may explain why he said he admired the “swag” in my last name. I didn’t have the heart to tell him my real name is not Rosenberg. It’s Kanye. I use Rosenberg for the swag. Anyway, Parker said he wasn’t even watching the Selection Show.
“My head was down,” he said. “Everybody went crazy, and then I jumped up.”
He never came down. In his last game, against UAB, Parker scored 28 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
UCLA fans should be used to this kind of March resurgence. The Bruins made an art of it under Steve Lavin, whose teams would look soft and disinterested until March, at which point Lavin would return from sabbatical and start coaching.
So here they will be on the temporary floor at NRG Stadium in Houston: UCLA, a monument to unfulfilled potential, and Gonzaga, a paragon of stability and overachievement. You could not find two more different college programs than UCLA basketball and Gonzaga basketball.
How about Mississippi State football and the economics department at the Sorbonne?
O.K., fine, those are more different. Stop taking me so literally. But speaking of Mississippi State, the Bulldogs just hired Ben Howland, who most recently coached UCLA. Officially, Howland’s title at UCLA was the Corbin Bernsen Distinguished Professor of Not Coaching Basketball As Well As the Fans Would Like. He replaced Lavin, who replaced Jim Harrick, who replaced four other guys including Larry Brown, who once quit and immediately applied for the job again, saying he could do better than the last guy.
UCLA was eager to sweep Howland out of town two years ago. It seemed like the Ben Howland Watch went on for a good three years before he was fired. There were various reasons for it. For most of Howland’s tenure, his style was boring. You wondered if the best athletes would want to play for him, and at times the guys on scholarship did not seem to want to play for him.
On the other hand, we have this fun little stat:
Total Final Four appearances by Pac 12 coaches, 2002-present:
Ben Howland: 3.
Everybody else: 0.
Firing Howland seemed like a great idea until UCLA hired Steve Alford to replace him, confusing everybody. But now Alford has UCLA in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, confusing fans who were furious that Alford not only let his son Bryce into practice, but also put him in the starting rotation. They missed Bryce’s appeal: He can shoot and he can’t leave school early because his dad would ground him.
Is this the start of UCLA acting like the UCLA we still expect? Or is it the end of a surprising but ultimately fruitless run?
“You just don’t want your season to end,” Parker said in the locker room Thursday. “You want to be around these ugly guys for a long time.”
I don’t think he meant the media. But I didn’t ask.