Business as usual for the Blue and Gold this weekend, where a trip to the Final Four (let alone the West Regional championship) is but a layover.
UCLA may have earned its third consecutive (and 18th overall) trip to the Final Four with a 76-57 thumping of Xavier on Saturday at US Airways Center, but what matters to the Bruins, Westwood and Pauley Pavilion wasn’t being the first of the four teams to book airfare to San Antonio this weekend.
It’s being the last to leave.
“That’s what it’s all about,” UCLA freshman Kevin Love said. “When you walk around Pauley Pavilion, you don’t see Final Four banners. You see national championship banners.
“I came to win a national championship and I feel we have a good chance to do that.”
The “C” is highlighted on the players’ jerseys this season to commemorate 100 combined NCAA championships won by the school, but the basketball team is now close to winning No. 101.
But it’s been an arduous path for UCLA (35-3) since Jim Harrick won a title behind the O’Bannon brothers (Ed and Charles) after being rescued by a coast-to-coast layup by Tyus Edney.
Michigan State was the last team to reach three consecutive Final Fours (1999-2001), with Duke (four straight from 1989-1992) and Kentucky (1996-1998) the others who have done it since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
UCLA, however, was sent home in 2006 and 2007 by eventual champion Florida.
“We were beat by a great team,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland, who has ties to Xavier coach Sean Miller through their separate times at Pittsburgh. “Both years, Florida was special.”
Love, the big-bodied, universally skilled freshman and Pac-10 player of the year, is the biggest reason (literally and figuratively) for hope among the UCLA faithful.
He doesn’t see it that way, though, and noted the disappointment left on the psyches of co-stars Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
“The whole season was just erased from us last year,” Collison said following a game-high 19 points and five assists. “And so we don’t ever want to experience that.”
Collison and Westbrook combined to shoot 14 of 23 from the field. UCLA committed only one turnover in the second half, and the Bruins’ brutal defense did a number on the Musketeers (36 percent shooting, including 4-for-19 from behind the arc).
“We came close twice,” Shipp said. “It left a sour taste. We definitely have unfinished business.”
Combine Love’s presence (19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two blocks) with UCLA’s backcourt, defense, experience and a 29-0 record this season when holding a 10-point lead at any time, and even the team whose own record-breaking season ended Saturday was touting their opponent soon after.
Is it time to start the second century’s worth of championships?
“I’m really pulling for them,” Miller said. “I’m hoping we lost to the national champions.”