LOS ANGELES -- When UCLA opens play in the NCAA tournament Thursday, the Bruins will be facing a tough, battle-tested opponent with a strong basketball tradition in a win-or-go-home game taking place about as far away from home as they could on the first weekend.
Just the way they like it.
No. 7-seeded UCLA (22-10) faces No. 10 Michigan State (19-14) Thursday in an NCAA second-round game at 6:20 p.m. at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., in what amounts to a perfect storm of motivating factors for the Bruins.
They seem to play better against nationally reputable opponents, they tend to band together on the road and are inclined to play at a higher level when their backs are against the wall.
So a team that has had trouble staying motivated and focused for 40 minutes against lesser opponents and in situations it doesn't consider a must-win figures to be at its best under the bright lights Thursday night.
"All those things are definitely going to help us," said UCLA point guard Lazeric Jones. "Our backs are against the wall, we're playing a highly regarded team and we're on the road where it'll be us against the world and we like it that way. That’s when we bond the best. We like to prove people wrong and I feel like we can do so."
Throughout this season, the Bruins have interspersed perplexing performances against teams that shouldn't have been much trouble with high-level showcases against some of the top teams in the country.
The same team that took Kansas to the final seconds lost to Montana three days later. The same team that handled Brigham Young nearly lost to UC Irvine five days after that.
A week after needing overtime to defeat last-place Arizona State, UCLA defeated St. John's. Two weeks after that, the Bruins scored 18 points in the first half of an overtime loss at California.
UCLA trounced then-No. 10 Arizona 71-53, then a week later scrambled for an overtime victory against a short-handed Washington State team playing without Pac-10 leading scorer Klay Thompson and point guard Reggie Moore. Five days later, the Bruins were embarrassed by Oregon 76-59 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament.
Clearly this is a team that requires big moments for the motivation to put together a complete 40-minute effort, and it doesn't get any bigger than playing in the NCAA tournament against a team that has played in two consecutive Final Fours.
"It’s tournament time," guard Malcolm Lee said. "It’s win or go home. Whereas some of those other games we knew there wasn't much at stake, but now we kind of know what’s at stake. We know we can’t take this team for granted."
The culmination of that lackadaisical attitude came last week against Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament. The Bruins came out flat against a 16-loss team and seemed as if they didn't care whether they won or lost.
"That was our worst game of the year by far," coach Ben Howland said. "Not even close. It was our worst performance of the year."
That it came in the 32nd game of the season was somewhat of a surprise, or maybe not. The Bruins were already a lock for a spot in the NCAA tournament, so they felt like they had nothing on the line going into that game. Improving their seeding or getting a game closer to home simply wasn't enough motivation.
"Mentally, if we approach it like 'We’ve got this in the bag,' that’s when teams creep up on you," Lee said. "That’s what you saw against Oregon. We had the mentality that our backs weren’t against the wall because we had a little cushion. We had a good season that put us in the tournament so we approached the game with that kind of mentality that this is just a game. We have another tournament coming up that’s really going to count."
The good news for the Bruins is that the loss to Oregon seems to have opened their eyes.
"It was embarrassing to lose that way," forward Tyler Honeycutt said.
Practices since then have had a higher intensity with energy and enthusiasm, the players said. Some even said they were the best practices of the year, and Howland agreed.
"I think our practice was indicative that our guys understood how poorly we played," Howland said.
Howland didn't buy into the argument that his team has a split personality, however. He points out that the team won 13 of its past 17 games and that three of those losses could have gone either way. The important thing, Howland said, is that the team improved over the course of the season and won big games when it had to.
"I don’t characterize the team as a Jekyll and Hyde," he said. "I think that’s pretty consistent if you look over the course of a year as a team matures and grows and gets better."
And that bad loss to Oregon left a sour taste and served as a grim reminder of what could linger with an early exit from the NCAA tournament.
"Losing like that was a wake-up call," Honeycutt said. "It reminded us about how it would feel not finishing out how we want to and settling for less than what we expected. I think we're pretty hungry heading into this tournament."