One thing I really appreciate about UCLA's basketball team is the sense of realistic expectations with the simultaneous down-to-earth drive for greatness. This is a killer combination.
On the one hand, UCLA is a growing team trying to live up to three straight Final Fours and a top-ten ranking. The resume shows only one win over a NCAA tournament team (USC), and there is some sense that the team hasn't really survived the kind of tests that will push them deep into the NCAA Tournament. At least not yet. So, putting top-10 rankings aside, it is hard to argue against those bracketologists (Lunardi, for one) who have us as a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That is where we should be right now. But in what I find to be a breath of fresh air, you don't hear our team talking about how such predictions are "disrespectful," or some other nonsense. No, I'd bet the team thinks such predictions are fair--and that it's up to them to earn something better. They are realistic in terms of what has been earned so far, but working hard for something better.
On the other hand, is there any question that UCLA is "obviously good"? There is a lot of talent on this team, with players improving all the time and getting better. Drew Gordon, Drago, and Roll have all taken remarkable strides this year, doing all that anybody can ask--making the most of their opportunities. And J.Anderson and Holiday are also playing great, and getting better. Indeed, there is no question that UCLA is "obviously good," even if their current resume doesn't necessarily speak to them being a top-seed in the NCAA tournament. They might not have a bunch of "quality wins" right now, but there will be opportunities. Fast and Furious, those opportunities will come over the next three weeks.
Arizona is always a tough game, and it will always mean something--even if Arizona doesn't look like the power of 5 years ago. And ASU is the opportunity for the kind of quality win the team needs to meet their goals. And then we are on the road for two more games, WSU and Washington, before taking on Stanford and Cal. Tough, Tough, Tough, and Tougher.
Three weeks in the Pac-10 are always crucial. An eternity. But with this team, teetering on greatness, with only quality wins against quality opponents between them and a justifiable top-5 ranking (and top-3 seed), I think these three weeks are even more exciting. I think this team is relishing the opportunity to play great. I think the opportunity excites them. I think under their cloak-of-controlled-emotions is a fire to get back to the Final Four.
We will learn a lot about this team in the next three weeks. Perhaps more than at any other time this year. I expect some quality wins, probably a tough loss, but a solid performance night in and night out. And, particularly after the ASU game, I expect more talk about the Pac-10 player of the year. Sure Harden might be deserving, but it will be tough to ignore Darren Collison after the next three weeks. I'm not giving Harden anything until someone shows me that Harden is better and more important to ASU than Collison is to the Bruins. Same goes to those putative Players of the Year out there: watch out for D.C.
UCLA plays hard, they don't talk, and they get better every day. Most importantly, I have a sense that the team demands more out of itself then do its fans, who see the youth and promise and forgive mistakes more easily. Yes, I like this team: "Obviously Good," and (luckily) with Something to Prove.