Bruins' time is now, or else not for a while


PHOENIX

This is it, the best chance, the most desirable moment, the optimum matchups, the point when UCLA will be handed its finest opportunity to win a national championship with the basketball beast Ben Howland has created.

Never has it been this fierce under Howland. Never has its bite been this lethal.

This is it. This is the time. Win it all, or keep waiting for perhaps a long time.

The Bruins will arrive to a third straight Final Four the most complete team they have offered during Howland's five-year tenure as coach, a truth shown throughout a 76-57 breeze of a victory against Xavier in the West Regional final Saturday.

"We have been to this point before," UCLA point guard Darren Collison said. "We're not satisfied."

Different reasons have passed down over centuries for when the idea of a third time being the charm was first mentioned. Some say the adage dates to the late 1800s and English law that stated anyone who survived three attempts at hanging would be set free. Others suggest it refers to a folk belief about perseverance. There is no historical evidence it has anything to do with trashy celebrities continuing to enter alcohol and drug rehab.

There's one reason, however, why it might prove true for UCLA in San Antonio: Florida won't be there.

UCLA coaches will tell you the Bruins could not have been more prepared when facing the Gators in the national semifinals last year and the title game in 2006. Couldn't have been more focused. Couldn't have had better weeks of practice leading into the games. Couldn't have watched more film. Couldn't have devised more ways to pull Joakim Noah's hair.

It didn't matter. Florida was much better.

There are no such potential opponents this year. North Carolina. Kansas or Davidson. Memphis or Texas. All would present UCLA issues to confront, but none is so superior that the Bruins couldn't defend their way to the school's 12th championship and first since 1995.

"I think this is by far our best team the last three years," Howland said. "We have that key ingredient, that inside player who can score and rebound like nobody else in the country."

Oh, yeah. That guy.

Kevin Love during this NCAA Tournament has been to consistency what Stephen Curry of Davidson has been to excitement. Love's latest double-double (19 points, 10 rebounds) earned him the region's most outstanding player award in a selection that was more obvious than HBO's need for a post-"Sopranos" hit.

But while the freshman center is potentially the piece UCLA needs to award Howland a championship ring, he is also why a loss in San Antonio might be the program's last chance at seizing one for a while.

Love is almost assuredly playing his only collegiate season before departing for an NBA lifestyle. Others (the junior Collison and electric sophomore guard Russell Westbrook) aren't ready to leave UCLA early and pursue such a dream, but there are whispers of each strongly considering the option. It happens. Kids sometimes make bad decisions.

UCLA always will have great players under Howland. His latest recruiting class ranked first nationally in the early signing period. The rich get bigger and faster and more athletic all the time. But you can't overestimate Love's value. He means almost everything right now.

How many times can you test the harshness of an NCAA bracket and still be breathing on a season's final weekend? People have no clue how difficult it is to reach the Final Four, great players or not.

To qualify three straight times?

Unbelievable.

UCLA is the fourth team to do so since the NCAA field expanded to 64 in 1985. Kentucky won the title on its first try in 1996 and again in 1998. Michigan State won on its second trip in 2000. Duke made five straight between 1988 and 1992 and won the final two.

"We lost to a great team," said Xavier coach Sean Miller, whose Musketeers shot just 36 percent. "They had a way about them as if they had been here before. Today was high stakes, and I really believe we went as far as we could because UCLA is terrific.

"Getting to the Final Four with a player like (Love) maybe more so than the past will allow UCLA to win the national championship.

"I am really pulling for them. I hope we lost to the national champion."

This is it. This is the time.

The beast never has been more prepared to devour what might stand in its path. If it doesn't eat now, it might ultimately die of hunger.

Ed Graney's column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

 

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