The question kept getting asked, first to Russell Westbrook and then to Darren Collison and then to Josh Shipp. How is this year's UCLA team different from the previous two, both of which lost in the Final Four? Their answers included comments about leadership and experience and trust -- platitudes on top of platitudes -- and none of them stated the obvious.
The difference? Kevin Love.
The Bruins became only the third team to advance to three consecutive Final Fours since they expanded the field to 64 by defeating Xavier 76-57 at the U.S. Airways Arena. But that achievement was smothered by postgame discussion over whether this year's team would fare differently than its predecessors. That debate inevitably turned to Love, the burly freshman who stood proudly in the UCLA locker room on Saturday with his West Regional champions hat slightly askew. He scored 19 points with 10 rebounds and four assists against the Musketeers, a near-perfect game that will only flame optimism among Bruins fans that this is the year they will win their first national title since 1995.
"Kevin Love is that extra special player that maybe UCLA hasn't had in the past that could make the difference for them," Xavier coach Sean Miller said. "[Having him] could allow them to win the national championship."
At one point in the postgame celebration, Love put Collison on his back and picky-backed him around the court. It was a metaphor for what could happen in San Antonio.
"If that is what people want to make it, that is fine with me. I kind of embrace the pressure. But I don't know if it is necessarily the case," Love said. "I don't know if people remember, but there was a team called Florida that past two years that was tough. They had three or four lottery picks and sent like five guys to the NBA. I'm just hoping there will be no Florida team this year and we'll have as good a shot as anybody to win."
As the Bruins began looking ahead to the Final Four, they were also asked to glance back at a 63-62 loss to Texas in December. The teams could meet again in San Antonio if the Longhorns defeat Memphis on Sunday.
"Maybe we would like to have another shot at Texas but I am not calling anybody out," Love says. "We've changed a lot since that game. I think I had only five rebounds and played maybe 21 minutes. I was learning a lot of the defense still. Since then, I've cut down on my mistakes and gotten better."
Added Collison: "At the beginning of the year, people didn't know what their roles were."
Love's role on Saturday against the third-seeded Musketeers was to prevent the Bruins from continuing a troubling tendency to let up on opponents in the second half. At the intermission, Bruins coach Ben Howland pleaded with his players to not repeat the mistake they made against Western Kentucky a round early, when they let a 21-point lead shrink to four. Love heeded the request, having a hand in almost every score in a 15-2 run to open the second half that pushed a seven-point lead to 20. He started the scoring with a free throw and then blocked a shot that led to a Collison layup. Later, he assisted on a three-pointer by Collison, scored inside and then made a three-pointer of his own.
On defense, Love helped hold Xavier forward Josh Duncan to 11 points, and also harassed Xavier's guards by flashing out on screens to cutoff their penetration.
"We got one foul [on Love] in the first four minutes and I got excited," Miller said. " [But] I think had we played 200 more minutes, he would not have picked his second foul up. He doesn't foul."
Going into the game, 10 of UCLA's last 15 contests had been decided by 10 points or less. That included two victories over Stanford and Cal at home that were, by most accounts, gifted to them by dubious officiating. In the NCAA tournament, they almost lost to Texas A&M and let Western Kentucky scare them at the same time Memphis, Kansas and North Carolina, the other No. 1 seeds, routed better teams.
While the Bruins would take a victory by any measure, it meant something to depart for San Antonio with Saturday's trouncing on their resume. Xavier is a good team -- miscast as a mid-major --that plays stellar defense and is as well coached as any in the tournament. To shoot 53.8 percent against the Musketeers, to win by 19, it took something special. It isn't difficult to identify the player who makes this year's version more special than past Bruins teams.
"Everything really starts and stop with [Love]," Miller said. "He has no ability to get rattled, which for a freshman is amazing."