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BILL DWYRE

UCLA might be living up to its great expectations

Victory over Cal seems to have answered some questions about the Bruins ... at least for now.

January 31, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Ever since they built the place 44 years ago and John Wooden sat in the coach's chair, Pauley Pavilion has been a place of Charles Dickens lore. Here, there are always Great Expectations.

There certainly were Thursday night, when the basketball Bruins of Ben Howland took the court for a game against California.

This wasn't business as usual. There had been whispers. The Bruins were struggling, the swagger was gone. Howland was too strict. The school that has 11 national titles and scoffs at anything less suddenly didn't look as if it could be a contender. In recent games, the Bruins were taking more punches than they were landing.

One local columnist crowed that "nobody outside of Westwood is predicting a Final Four run for UCLA this year." Another simmered that Howland was boring, and so was his team.

All that made Thursday night much bigger than your normal game near the midpoint of the Pacific 10 Conference season.

The Bruins were tied for second place in a conference they have won the last three years. They entered with a 5-2 league record, same as their opponents, who were coached by Mike Montgomery, who made Stanford a perennial contender before trying the NBA and then returning to coach across the Bay this season.

Montgomery had his Golden Bears at 16-4, half a game better than UCLA's 15-4. They weren't ranked in the top 25, but UCLA, always getting at least some votes based on tradition, was at an uncomfortable No. 17. In Westwood, that's like being seen driving a Hyundai.

There were problems in River City. Problems with a capital P.

Sure, Howland's teams had gotten to the NCAA tournament Final Four the last three years.

But hey, what had they done for us lately?

Where was the sizzle on offense? Why didn't this team penetrate more, dish inside and muscle it up? Why didn't it spend more time at the free-throw line? Were we going to have to sit around all year and watch guys firing away from the three-point line?

And what about the vaunted Howland defense? Was it possible that UCLA's shooting-percentage defense really ranked seventh in the conference, going into the game?

Holy J.D. Morgan! What was going on?

And so they came to see, the usual 12,800 dressed mostly in powder blue. Athletic Director Dan Guerrero was there. So was football Coach Rick Neuheisel.

More important, so was Wooden, at 98 looking not a day over 88. The legend sitting in the building he made legendary.

The band played, the media gathered, the students in the blue T-shirts that say "Champions Made Here" stomped and swayed and made it clear that some Bears may be Golden, but the Bruins were the toughest animals in the house.

It was a night where failure could have put Howland on the hot seat for the first time in his charmed six seasons in Westwood, silly as that may seem for a coach with a team ranked among the nation's elite and in the thick of a conference title race.

So what was UCLA's answer?

* An 81-66 rout of Cal, which never led.

* A defense that forced 16 turnovers in the first half and 21 for the game, made 16 steals, and kept Cal's shooting at 44.9%.

* Penetration that produced 38 points in the paint and a shooting percentage of 54.9%, as well as 23 free throws that produced 21 points, a 91.3% clip.

* With losses by Washington and Arizona State, a move up to a share of the conference lead at 6-2 with Washington.

"I didn't have a lot to complain about tonight," Howland said.

Montgomery, as good an interview as he is a coach, easily addressed the talk of the Bruins being a fading team.

"It's the usual," he said. "They lose a game and the sky is falling. OK, they may not be as good as some of the past teams, but if they aren't, they're still pretty good."

So, it would seem, all remains well in Westwood.

Guerrero indicated that progress is being made toward the $135-million renovation of Pauley he wants to begin about this time next year, and he said that a best-case scenario would present a shiny new arena by 2012.

Wooden will be 102 then and will dedicate the place with either a reverse layup or a finger roll.

Howland addressed the media, talked about today's game at Pauley against a 13-5 Stanford team that has lost four of six as if the Cardinal were the Boston Celtics, and keynoted where he stood on all this by saying, "It's going to be one game at a time. Sorry to be boring, guys."

In the end, the rout of Cal was a great game for Bruins everywhere. That is what they expect.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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