UCLA Coach Ben Howland talks strategy with point guard Lazeric Jones during… (Joe Nicholson / US Presswire )
UCLA is playing Michigan State in its NCAA tournament opener, but who are the Spartans facing?
Will it be the Bruins who showed up Brigham Young and Arizona?
Or the Bruins who did not show up against Montana and Oregon?
If it seems hard to imagine a team retaining a split personality 32 games into a season, well, meet your 2010-11 UCLA Bruins. Less than two weeks after dismantling 23-win Arizona in their home finale, the Bruins disappeared against 16-loss Oregon in the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament.
The Bruins appear to draw more motivation from the name on their opponents' jerseys than the four letters stitched across the front of theirs.
And that actually bodes well for the Bruins heading into the NCAA tournament. Seventh-seeded UCLA (22-10) will play a second-round game Thursday night at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., against No. 10-seeded Michigan State (19-14), a brand-name team from the Big Ten Conference with unparalleled recent tradition.
"They've been to the Final Four six times in the last 12 years," said UCLA Coach Ben Howland, whose team is returning to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. "What else do you have to say?"
Well, something, anything, if the Bruins' 76-59 loss to Oregon is any indication of what silence does for UCLA. Howland acknowledged that he did not see any of his players try to pull their teammates together when things started to unravel against the Ducks.
"I mean, no," he said.
The lack of in-game leadership is nothing new for a team without a senior. Freshman center Joshua Smith said junior guards Jerime Anderson or Lazeric Jones typically deliver a pregame pep talk.
"Other than that, it's just kind of on ourselves," Smith said. "We don't have one guy who just kind of brings everyone together."
Junior guard Malcolm Lee, the Bruins' top defender and most consistent player, isn't the vocal type. Anderson said he tries to rally his teammates, but he averages only 20 minutes a game and is not always on the court when someone needs to take charge.
That leaves Jones, who said he did his best to verbally shake UCLA out of its funk against Oregon.
"But when you dig a hole that deep this time of the year," Jones said, "it's kind of hard to pull out."
Sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said the Bruins took a victory over the Ducks for granted after beating them twice during the regular season. And perhaps the meltdown should not have been surprising given UCLA's penchant for uninspired play against supposedly lesser teams.
By contrast, the Bruins have played their best against teams that are highly regarded, defeating BYU and Arizona and coming within two points and one controversial ending of knocking off Kansas on the road.
"We look at the Arizona game and we realize how hard we played and how focused we were," Smith said of UCLA's 71-49 victory Feb. 26. "Just to see how it resulted in us beating them by , we know if we focus the way we can that we can beat anybody we play, so we have to try to emulate that."
There is one thing UCLA won't be able to match Thursday: Michigan State's postseason experience.
The Spartans have played in two consecutive Final Fours, and their senior class has accumulated 11 NCAA tournament victories, the most by any current team. Guard Kalin Lucas and forward Delvon Roe were starters on both of those Final Four teams, and guard Durrell Summers and forward Draymond Green were key contributors.
Compare that with the Bruins, who have only two players with NCAA tournament experience (Lee and Anderson). The guards combined to play 32 scoreless minutes against Virginia Commonwealth and Villanova in the 2009 tournament, though Lee had two rebounds.
Advantage, Michigan State.
"That name on their jersey says something, and that coach says something," Anderson said, referring to Tom Izzo, "and I think it's going to be a good, marquee game."
Exactly the type, it seems, in which the Bruins seem to thrive.