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UCLA defined by simple question: hot or not?

March 11, 2009 |  7:23 am

Darren Collison must lead UCLA to the Pac-10 tournament title, or lack of momentum could spell trouble in the NCAA tournament. UCLA's basketball season reminds me of a naked USC alumni.

"We're going streaking! Through the quad and into the gymnasium!"

Will Ferrell's legendary rally cry seems appropriate for the Bruins, whose coach, at least, is Old School. Ben Howland even has a way of keeping his players in line when he's not in the room. This weekend, I asked the UCLA basketball coach if his team seemed streaky this year.

"I don't think we've been streaky," he replied.

I posed the same question to a couple players and told them about Howland's response. My mistake. Josh Shipp walked the party line. He wouldn't even define "streaky" when I asked what it meant. I went another route and asked if his favorite baseball team had ever been on one. Howland wasn't in the room, but Shipp decided he didn't have a favorite baseball team anymore. Interview over.

"I don't feel we've been streaky," said Alfred Aboya. Sounded familiar.

But Aboya continued, "I just feel like when we got on a winning streak after the Texas game, we were really playing well. The next loss we had after that, we kinda' went down ... after that we went on a four game winning streak ... then, after that, we had a tough road trip."

Aboya did what Shipp wouldn't -- he defined streaky. And much like Ferrell's character, there was a little bit of denial.

Let's review what's happened since Dec. 7:

  • Ten straight crushing victories, by an average margin of almost 22 points per game.
  • Three straight second-half meltdowns, resulting in one win and two losses.
  • Four blowout wins, over major-conference opponents, by an average margin of more than 22 points per game.
  • Three losses in four games, UCLA's worst streak since 2005.
  • Four straight wins, by an average margin of 15 points per game.

I know UCLA likes to measure streaks in increments of 88, but let's be realistic. This is a streaky team. The only question is why.

The Bruins have talent in spades. They have offensive production, leading the nation in shooting percentage. They have defensive production, leading the conference in both steals and turnover margin (Darren Collison and Aboya both made the Pac-10 All-Defensive team). They have experienced senior leadership. They have a proven formula. They have one of the top coaches in the game.

They also have a concern, which Collison acknowledged on Tuesday.

Asked about the streaky situation, UCLA's point guard felt the assessment was fair. "Yeah, that's the mental part. We know what it takes to win the ball games. We know what it takes to be one of the elite teams in the country. But, then again, we have a lack of intensity, lack of effort at times. We're inconsistent."

Aboya had hinted at the same issue a few days earlier, saying the Bruins' troubles came when they lost focus.

The mental game is all that matters for UCLA now. Several players intimated that they had adopted a "no room for error" perspective. While cliche, there's a particular truth in it with how the Bruins have been playing this year. A loss in the Pac-10 tournament wouldn't officially end their season, but it would end their momentum. Same difference.

On the other hand, a Pac-10 tournament title would send UCLA to the Big Dance on a seven-game winning streak. Maybe it isn't the Bruins, but everybody else who should be concerned about their focus.

"I feel our team is the best team out there if we execute and do what we're supposed to do," said Aboya.

At their sharpest -- but only at their sharpest -- another Final Four run isn't unreasonable.

-- Adam Rose

Photo: Darren Collison must lead UCLA to the Pac-10 tournament title, or lack of momentum could spell trouble in the NCAA tournament. Credit: Jeff Lewis / Associated Press