UCLA players (from left to right) Brendan Lane, Josh Smith, David Wear and… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
In the end, as Ben Howland's most troubling UCLA basketball team was slowly disintegrating on the floor, I couldn't keep my eyes off the bench.
Every time a player left the court, he returned home alone.
No teammate stood up to cheer him. No teammate walked over to slap his hand or pat his back. Nobody said "good job." Nobody said anything.
If the Bruins' 66-58 loss to Arizona in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament Thursday afternoon was their final game this season, it was a chilling final verdict on the state of the program.
If there is a team here, I couldn't find it.
David Wear fought for a rebound, blocked a shot and walked off to crickets. Travis Wear fouled out after finishing the season as the team's second-leading scorer and nobody even turned their head.
Lazeric Jones came to the bench after fighting through picks with a swollen nose, fighting through probably the last game of his UCLA career, and sat down to silence. Jerime Anderson, also probably ending his UCLA career, emotionally walked off the court afterward without so much as one teammate's arm draped around his shoulder.
While one of the worst things that happened to the Bruins was the fouling out of Josh Smith with 11:02 remaining, at least it gave returning players something of a welcoming committee. Smith sat at the head of the bench and would hold out his hand and tap it against the hand of the sweaty guy sitting down next to him. But nobody else moved.
Bad enough that college basketball's greatest champion will not even appear in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. Worse yet that the team's head coach is under fire for allowing jerks to pollute what was once college basketball's winningest culture.
None of that screams "This is not UCLA basketball" more than that silence on the UCLA bench.
"We had our tough times, but this team is a family; we really stuck together," claimed Jones late Thursday.
It certainly didn't look like it, not only during bench time, but in crunch time, when the Bruins blew a nice team comeback by suddenly going solo.
After fighting back from a 10-point deficit to even take a brief one-point lead, the Bruins found themselves with the ball and a 51-all tie with 6:16 remaining. The next three possessions defined a season.
Tyler Lamb lost the ball off his foot on a one-man fast break. Travis Wear was fouled but missed his free throw. Anderson threw up a quick and bad shot that was tipped. In the meantime, the Wildcats were scoring seven consecutive points on great passing and smart driving and that was that.
"We had our opportunities to win this game today and did not seize the moment," said Howland, whose final duty in his ninth season was, for longtime Bruins fans, surely a heartbreaking one.
Has a UCLA coach ever had to admit that he would love an NIT bid? And then acknowledge that he wasn't sure one would be offered? Which part of that is worse? Howland did both.
"I don't really even know the numbers or what our chances are to get in and get invited to the NIT," Howland said.
It was an appropriately flimsy ending for a team that mostly looked as if it was hoping to get invited to spring break. The bigger Bruins outscored the Wildcats by 17 points in the paint, and had six more steals, and three more assists and, heck, actually made eight more baskets.
But Arizona won with nine more rebounds and 21 more free throws because the Wildcats attacked more insistently and more together.
"We didn't handle their pressure very well," Anderson said.
And now the heat is on Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who has politely refused to give Howland a vote of confidence and now must figure out whether he will give him another season.
The question is, can a coach who went to three straight Final Fours with inflexible discipline and fundamentals loosen up enough to win back a team that has become too disengaged to even cheer for one another?
A new Pauley Pavilion will help. A new influx of highly touted recruits will help. But none of that will help as much as realization by Howland that he needs to evolve into more of a player's coach.
I don't know if he will. I don't know if he can. Yet I do know he was smart and savvy enough to stabilize this program after the nutty Steve Lavin years, and I think he deserves a chance to do it again.
Of course, after watching a Bruins team we barely recognize stumble out of this season as if they barely know one another, it should certainly be a last chance.