Wednesday March 12th, 2008

After discussing the merits of the Pac-10 tournament, the complexities of the NCAA seeding process, and the possibility that his team will reach the Final Four for the third year in a row, UCLA center Kevin Love pondered a far more pressing question. "Are we the Duke of the West?" Love asked. "Does everybody hate us now?"

Besides winning, nothing induces vitriol in college basketball quite like the appearance of preferential treatment. Last week, in a span of 48 hours, UCLA was the beneficiary of three very iffy calls. Considering that the Bruins were playing at home three favorable calls are not a lot. But the timing was crucial. One came with 2.5 seconds left in regulation against Stanford. The other two came in the final 16 seconds against Cal. All three helped the Bruins complete dramatic comeback victories that locked up the Pac-10 title and likely a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Asked if UCLA can ever complain about officiating again, at least for the rest of this season, Love responded with a grin: "I don't think we really have the right," he said.

No team that admits its good fortune can join the ranks of the hated. The Bruins recognize that they got away with one -- or two -- and cannot expect much charity from here on out. "To win a championship, sometimes you have to be a little lucky," Love said. "A lot of people are talking about those calls. But I think that will give us extra incentive to prove that we really are a legit team, a legit contender to win the title."

Right now, UCLA's existence appears charmed. Only a freshman, Love was voted Pac-10 Player of the Year. Only a sophomore, Russell Westbrook was voted Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Unless the Bruins implode again in their conference tournament -- last season, they were knocked out in the first round by Cal -- their road to the Final Four will go through Anaheim and Phoenix. Last year, it went through Sacramento and San Jose. Two years ago, it went through San Diego and Oakland.

"We want to make things as easy as possible," point guard Darren Collison said.

But even at Pauley Pavilion, in the final week of the regular season, nothing came easily. Last Thursday night, UCLA trailed Stanford by two, with 2.5 seconds left in regulation, when Collison drove on Stanford's Lawrence Hill. As Collison took his shot, Hill rose and blocked the ball cleanly. But there was contact with the body. A foul was called. Collison sank both free throws and the Bruins won in overtime.

Afterward, Hill admitted contact and credited Collison. But Collison told reporters he was fortunate and thought the call was a "make-up." Bill McCabe, Pac-10 supervisor of officials, said the call was not wrong, but not appropriate for the situation.

Two days later, the Bruins found themselves in a remarkably similar situation, down by one with 15.7 seconds left against Cal. As Ryan Anderson caught an in-bounds pass for Cal, Westbrook mobbed him and swiped the ball loose. Officials ruled that the swipe was clean and the ball bounced off Anderson, out of bounds to UCLA.

Given possession, Josh Shipp made a game-winning circus shot, over a corner of the backboard with 1.5 seconds left. Lost in the pandemonium at Pauley was a little-known rule that prohibits any shot from crossing the backboard. The next day, Cal coach Ben Braun reportedly contacted Pac-10 officials about both controversial plays.

"I've never been involved in back-to-back games like that," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "It was just unbelievable. What we gained is that, no matter the circumstances, you're never out of a game until the clock says 0:00."

UCLA came back from a 14-point deficit in the second half against Stanford, an 11-point deficit midway through the second half against Cal. The officiating can be questioned, but the Bruins' resilience cannot. Take Shipp, for example. Known as one of UCLA's best shooters, he has been in a staggering slump. To start February, he missed 20 straight three-pointers in a span of six games. Even now, he has made only 8 of his last 47 three-point attempts. But he still had the juice to take -- and make -- that circus shot.

"After this weekend, I feel like we have something special going on," Shipp said.

UCLA is the rare team that can win without a bundle of three-pointers. The Bruins are out-rebounding opponents by more than nine per game. Sometimes, their best offense seems to be a missed jump shot, followed by a strong rebound and easy put-back.

In the past two years, UCLA reached the Final Four on the shoulders of its perimeter players, only to be pushed aside by the Florida big men, namely Al Horford and Joakim Noah. But with Love complementing Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata-Real, no one should push the Bruins around this year.

"Going to the Final Four two years in a row was nice," Collison said. "But we lost. I'm not going back to the Final Four just to lose again."

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