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As the Pac-10 plays out, Bruins regroup across town

March 10, 2007|Bill Dwyre

Today's Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament basketball final at Staples Center should be a heated prelude to the upcoming men's NCAA basketball tournament. But it won't be the whole deal. Expect some equally hot action about 10 miles west, at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.

The Bruins will be practicing there. In this case, practice is a mild term, and not one of endearment.

They will be paying penance for two games' worth of misdeeds. They will be having their focus redirected, their resolve tightened, their desire redefined.

Also, their butts kicked.

This is not to denigrate or downgrade any of the teams in the Pac-10, especially today's 3 p.m. finalists, Oregon and USC. The NCAA tournament should have basketball fans in the Pacific time zone ready to rumble. When they pick the teams Sunday for this annual rite of televised fun and gambling folly, there should be Pac-10 teams competing all over the place, possibly as many as six.

Oregon, Washington State and Arizona are in for sure. Maybe even Stanford. Even though the Cardinal's record is 18-12, it also offers the Lopez twins, 7-footers whose occasional moments of magic a yard above the rim are worth the price of admission.

Then there is USC, a team with a new arena, a street-smart second-year coach and a new chip on its shoulder. The assumption no longer holds that Trojans basketball can be mediocre and invisible as long as the football team is going well. USC goes seven or eight deep, Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt will eventually make large paychecks playing the game, and Coach Tim Floyd has introduced the kind of defensive intensity that has become a conference trademark this season.

At 23-10, the Trojans are in.

That leaves, of course, Coach Ben Howland's Bruins, the nation's No. 4-ranked team.

A week ago Thursday night, UCLA went into Pullman, Wash., certainly not a warm-and-fuzzy place, and won the outright Pac-10 title. Washington State is very good, ranked No. 11 nationally, and taking the prize there was an exceptional accomplishment.

Two days later, the Bruins went to Seattle and allowed the second-division Huskies to pound on them long enough to lose. Then, Thursday afternoon at Staples, UCLA fell behind by 16 points again and ended up getting bounced out by 15-16 Cal. They hadn't lost two in a row all season. The Cal defeat was UCLA's fifth in 31 games.

Some coaches would point to fatigue, others to lack of motivation in a tournament that asked UCLA to duplicate what it had done all season: prove that it was the best in the conference.

Howland wasn't buying any of that. The man who took the Bruins to last year's NCAA final and has geared this season to going that one step further, was a picture of controlled anger after Thursday's loss.

In his post-game meeting with the media, Howland didn't rant and rave. He doesn't do that. There were no John Chaney or Bob Knight moments. But if his hard-set jaw didn't say it, his terse statements did. They were words not only meant to answer reporters' questions, but to also send messages to his players.

He was asked about Cal's Ayinde Ubaka, who made the key shots to beat UCLA.

"He was the best player on the floor today," Howland said.

Left unsaid was that the player guarding Ubaka for much of the game, who shut out the Cal senior in an earlier game, was UCLA's All-American, Arron Afflalo.

Asked about Afflalo, Howland said, "He knows he played a bad game. We expect Arron will take responsibility for his poor performance."

Asked about the key shots by Ubaka that got the Bears into overtime, Howland said, "He goes right. We know he goes right. The scouting report says that he goes right. And he went right."

Afflalo's name wasn't mentioned. Didn't need to be.

Asked if, in light of their sure-thing bid for the NCAA, if there wasn't a silver lining in losing early and getting back to the more organized preparation that comes from regular practice sessions, Howland said, "No. You watched that game. There's no silver lining there. We have now played subpar against two teams who came out and played hard against us."

Then he keynoted it all, just in case anybody was missing his tone and intention.

"We will practice Saturday," he said, "and it will be the best practice of the year.

"I guarantee it."

Today's final at Staples will have all the usual intensity, emotion and lots of noise from a large crowd.

Today's practice at UCLA will have more than the usual intensity and emotion. But there won't be lots of noise from a huge crowd.

Just from Ben Howland.


Bill Dwyre can reached at To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to

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