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Ben Ball Round-Up: Western Kentucky Edition

So, while Nestor is enjoying the Emerald City, it's time to pivot to the one and only focus around these parts:  Western Kentucky University.

Before we move on, however, let's not let any MSM-fanned distractions about supposed "missed calls," "easy roads" or overlooked contributions get in the way of recognizing what the Bruins accomplished this past weekend.

First off, as zoo752 points out in the diaries, hopefully this weekend will help put to rest some of the annual (baseless) concerns raised by Howland's scheduling.  Eight games (including an outstanding 7-1 record) against other regional semifinalists shows exactly the kind of road UCLA travels to prepare for the big dance.  

And, before we get to the Hilltoppers, it's good to see that others have recognized some truly superlative performances by Love and DC during the opening weekend.  Notwithstanding his lame take re the closing minutes of the Texas A&M contest, Bilas gets a couple things right.  First on Love:

Best Player: Kevin Love, UCLA. Love did everything, from scoring to rebounding to blocking shots, and he did it with a maturity beyond his years. Plus, he helped the helpless: rescuing a ball behind the backboard by firing another ball at it, after a referee tried it multiple times and failed. On Wednesday, Love fired a ball 95 feet (standing out of bounds on the baseline) to the other basket ... and drained it ... with a chest pass. It is among the most incredible things I have ever seen on a basketball court. There can't be more than a handful of players on the planet who can do that. Incredible.

Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

You just can't say enough about this guy.  Early on Saturday, I was in my standard pre-game worry mode, telling my wife about A&M's kenpom rating, and such.  Then, Mrs. M stops me and says not to worry, "because Kevin won't let this team lose."  And, you know what, she was right.  Unlike some freshman phenoms, Love brings a level of intensity and composure to the game that amazes me again and again.  It was no different this past weekend.

And, there's no forgetting DC, who has elevated his game (even more) ever since the Pac-10 tourney.  Here's Bilas again:

Best Point Guard: Darren Collison, UCLA. It is hard to argue with those who would take Texas' D.J. Augustin as the nation's best point guard, but I would take UCLA's Collison without any hesitation. Collison is the most efficient point guard in the nation (shooting 51.6 percent from 3), and no guard puts better pressure on the ball to start your defense. When the game was on the line, it was Collison who hit the big shots.

More on DC from Dohn:

UCLA point guard Darren Collison was a central figure against Texas A&M, scoring a game-high 21 points, including making 5 of 8 attempts from 3-point range.

He also was a driving influence on UCLA's defensive push during a 17-minute stretch of the second half when the Aggies went 2 of 17 from the field, teaming with center Kevin Love to keep Texas A&M's guards from penetrating to the basket off the high screens that gave the Bruins so much difficulty in the first half.

"They were getting a lot of stuff off pick-and-roll at the top of the key," UCLA power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said. "We made some adjustments at halftime, and from that point on, we had some good stuff happening.

"Coach asked (Love and Collison) to keep the point guard on one side coming off the screen. He was coming off the screen one way, and going back the other way. Coach asked them to keep him on one side and make him make a tough pass. Once we did that, we started playing better defense."

And then there was Collison's last-minute heroics, as he banked in two difficult layups in the final minute. His first one, with 55 seconds remaining, gave the Bruins a 49-47 lead. His next one put the Bruins up 51-49 with 9.5 seconds to play.

And, finally, before anyone gets too carried away by some of the inane gibberish in the MSM, I'd like you to meet perspective, courtesy of Tydides:

Yeah UCLA is in a lot of trouble. Going to the wire against the 16th best team in the country according to Pomeroy is certainly reason to hit the panic button. Similarly:
Miami takes Texas to the very end before losing 75-72. Miami is the 45th best team in the country (lower than Oregon).

Butler takes Tennessee to overtime before losing 76-71. Butler is the 30th best team (below Gonzaga).

Davidson beats Georgetown. We know Davidson is legit. No further comment is necessary there.

Memphis in a dogfight with 35th ranked Mississippi State.

Looks like the Bruins had the most quality second round win.

Exactly.  And here's some more perspective from Mandel:

Confidence-level: Holding steady. The Bruins' 53-49 second-round escape against Texas A&M would be more troubling if not for the fact UCLA has had at least one similar game each of the past two years and reached the Final Four both times. If anything, the game may serve as a confidence-builder for stars Kevin Love and Darren Collison, who scored 40 of their team's 53 points and showed yet again they can take over a game down the stretch.

Now, on to Western Kentucky, who took care of business against USD yesterday.  The Bruins will have to transition from dealing with the physicality of Texas A&M to the guard oriented play of the Hilltoppers:

Western Kentucky (29-6) will face top-seeded UCLA in the West Region semifinals in Phoenix. The Hilltoppers can only hope their three senior guards -- Lee, Tyrone Brazelton and Ty Rogers -- will carry them through another round.

"I'm not totally surprised that we're here," Hilltoppers coach Darrin Horn said. "We thought this was a special team coming into it. ... We've been telling these guys for two years, three years really, 'If we get there, we've got a real chance to make some noise."'

And a chance to prove how important guard play is in the tournament.

Lee, the Sun Belt Conference player of the year, finished with 29 points and seven rebounds. He had a huge 3-pointer that gave his team the lead for good with 6:17 remaining, then sank six straight free throws in the final 34 seconds to seal the victory.

Brazelton added 15 points for the Hilltoppers, who won for the 19th time in 20 games.

Rogers, who hit a 26-footer at the buzzer in overtime to beat Drake in the first round, had a much quieter afternoon offensively. He had five points, three rebounds and two assists. But he came up big on the defensive end, holding San Diego's Brandon Johnson to 4-of-15 shooting and 13 points.

These guys can ball, and I was particularly impressed by how poised the Hilltoppers were against Drake.  UCLA will have to leave it's seed at the door and apply their trademark on-ball pressure to keep Lee, Brazelton (who had 33 against Drake) and Rogers off balance, while capitalizing on the Bruins advantages down low.

Here's the boilerplate preview from the Sporting News:

UCLA's game plan: This one is easy -- play the first half like it, you know, matters. The Bruins' potentially devastating tendency to fall behind early won't fly against Western Kentucky, which is unflappable on offense and has an absolute go-to guy in Courtney Lee, something Texas A&M clearly lacked. Some scoring from Josh Shipp would be nice for UCLA, but don't be surprised if Luc Richard Mbah a Moute dives into the fray with a big game.

Western Kentucky's game plan: The Hilltoppers must do whatever is needed to make UCLA point guard Darren Collison give up the ball, using half-court and full-court traps and lots and lots of ball pressure. The Hilltoppers also would be wise to let All-American center Kevin Love take all the perimeter jumpers he can hoist; WKU certainly can't handle Love on the low block. And there is reason to believe Shipp will continue to misfire. UCLA is so strong defensively that Lee might have to play decoy for shooters Tyrone Brazelton and Ty Rogers.

X-factor: The Hilltoppers like to speed things up with a full-court press, and they won't be shy about doing so Thursday night. The funny thing about the Bruins, though, is that they play better -- at least of late -- when they really get moving on offense.

Bottom line: If UCLA can successfully pick up the pace on offense without compromising its commitment to defense, this game eventually will become a one-sided affair. But that's a mighty big "if." Fortunately for the Bruins, they have a lot of experience winning nail-biters, too.

We'll have more on the Hilltoppers in the coming days, as we maintain a laser-like focus on advancing beyond this Thursday.  For now, though, let's try to enjoy the ride.  Enjoy the performances of some great kids.  And remember that our team has been here before and is exceptional hands.