Team experience benefiting UCLA

On what level does experience play a role in college basketball today?

Consider: UCLA is thought to own a terrific chance of returning to the Final Four because of all its postseason familiarity.

The same UCLA that starts three sophomores and two juniors.

Knowing how to win games in March is like knowing where the best weekend fraternity parties are -- it isn't always measured by class standing. It hasn't been for some time. The Bruins advanced to last year's national championship game against Florida behind several players who are back trying for a repeat performance.

(Well, trying for everything other than the part about losing in the final).

"I think in some ways [UCLA] is better than last year," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. "When you go through the [NCAA Tournament] like they did last season, I really think it made them mentally tough. When you got through that, your returning players come back with a different understanding, a different swagger and confidence. They certainly have all that.

"When we beat them [in Eugene on Jan. 6], they were shocked. They didn't expect to lose. Just going through what they did last year made them so much more confident. It's a basketball team that understands what it takes to be successful. Possession by possession, game by game, week by week, it has that confidence and work ethic that allows them to be so good."

UCLA was more than good early. It won its first 14 games and stood at No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll for six weeks before stumbling at Oregon. The Bruins then won their next four, but a game at Stanford on Sunday issued one of those mid-season wakeup calls coaches of elite teams constantly warn about and yet one players often have to experience to accept.

The suddenly streaking Cardinal beat UCLA 75-68, causing Bruins coach Ben Howland to closely examine how 14-0 was followed by 4-2.

"We've got to play for 40 minutes," said Howland, whose team might now be ranked No. 5 in both polls, but continues as No. 1 in the RPI. "We played a very good first half. I was disappointed with our finish to the first half [at Stanford], where we had a 15-point lead and shot way too early and gave them an opportunity to shoot a wide-open 3 and get momentum going into halftime.

"They just replace one great [player] with another. Everything else is the same. They're better at this point than they were a year ago, when they were an ever-improving team."
-- Oregon State coach Jay John

"When we've lost in the past, everybody has evaluated themselves, starting with me, to see what we need to do to be better."

There's a fairly decent chance his team will recognize and quickly move forward in a balanced Pac-10 conference that could send as many as six teams to the NCAAs, if for nothing else to end the state of depression.

Losing a game at UCLA nowadays seemingly sends massive waves of disappointment throughout the campus, which became evident this week when interview requests for players to speak on the team's progress proved useless. That's the response (translation: none) off the court. On it, the prospects are far brighter.

It would have devastated some teams for at least a season or two, losing the skill and intangibles players such as Cedric Bozeman, Jordan Farmar and Ryan Hollins offered last season. But rebuilding isn't an option at UCLA. Not under Howland. Not anymore, at least.

Players leave. Others fill gaps. The wins keep coming. Darren Collison effectively has replaced Farmar at point guard and Josh Shipp has proven healthy enough to replace Bozeman at a forward spot and Arron Afflalo just keeps scoring.

"They just replace one great [player] with another," Oregon State coach Jay John said. "Everything else is the same. They're better at this point than they were a year ago, when they were an ever-improving team."

Cal coach Ben Braun said one thing that separates UCLA from most others is its multiple offensive options as the shot clock nears zero. The best one is Afflalo, a junior averaging just over 17 points.

It's a different UCLA that would advance to the Final Four if the NCAA Tournament seeds prove favorable and the stars align as they did last March. Collison is different lead guard than Farmar. He's quicker and in turn so are the Bruins at each end of the floor. The offense is more balanced and consistent. The defense is still what makes UCLA go and opponents cringe.

If there is mystery that could make UCLA fans nervous as the second half of Pac-10 play begins and the NCAAs draw closer, it's how the Bruins ultimately will hold up inside. Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute combine to average a little over 15 points and 13 rebounds up front, but the visions of Florida center Joakim Noah dunking over and over in the championship game still linger. That, and Mbah a Moute has developed a problem with fouling. He does too much of it.

"I think there is no question that when we went into this season with a nucleus of players that had been on that team last year and been a part of a very positive experience, it was going to help us," Howland said. "We have guys who are used to winning and when we lose, it's very disappointing.

"We have always done everything as a team, including bouncing back from any loss. We win as a team and lose as a team."

And maybe return to the Final Four as a team.

The experience of last season has to count for something, right?

Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com.