Only four seasons ago, the Bruins were Final Four bound.
Much like Notre Dame football, UCLA basketball is as storied a tradition one can find in college sports. Eleven national championship banners hang from the rafters in Pauley Pavilion. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton became two of professional basketball's greatest players. Current NBA starlings Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love are Sons of Westwood.
However, they have slipped into a position of muddling mediocrity and made themselves at home. The head coach bent the rules for his premier players, allowing a tattooed member of the squad to play schoolyard bully. The magazine Sports Illustrated even took an interest into what contributed to the fall of the anti-Troy. The publication released a damning story, indicting head coach Ben Howland and former power forward Reeves Nelson. The magazine published this particular issue in the first week of March, with a handful of games left on the Bruins' regular season schedule.
UCLA hasn't lost since.
The Bruins find themselves in the midst of a rapid maturation. The Pac-12 tournament has begun, and UCLA has already disposed of the USC Trojans for the third time this season. On the docket next is Arizona, a talented but beatable team. UCLA split the season series with the Wildcats.
Should the Bruins beat Arizona, they would most likely face Washington, a team they beat in the season finale. After that lies the Pac-12 championship game, with the winner receiving an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
Where does UCLA finish in 2013?
While this is completely hypothetical, it fits well within the realm of possibility. If they receive the auto-bid to the tourney, UCLA has little chance to be seeded any higher than a nine or 10. This leaves the Bruins with a highly competitive game to advance into the round of 32. After winning their first game, their next task could be toppling a powerhouse like Kansas or Syracuse, both likely number one seeds.
Five wins separate the Bruins from a lonely trip back to campus and the Sweet 16. An impressive tournament run is becoming increasingly necessary for a team that was once on top of the college hoops kingdom. But if Howland and the Bruins are feeling the squeeze, one could not tell.
Twin towers David and Travis Wear, both 6'10", have effectively replaced the enigma that is Josh Smith. Point guard Lazeric Jones has embraced his role of seniority, and fellow upperclassman Jerime Anderson has tailored his attitude and followed suit. Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell fill out the Bruin backcourt and have played with more intensity after adopting their roles as sixth men.
While placing the Bruins in the Sweet 16 before they have even qualified for the tournament is limb-trekking, UCLA basketball has been living on the limb. However, far from the trunk that is UCLA tradition, today's Bruins remain attached to the tree.
Even though they have been plagued by poisonous seeds and bullying weeds, UCLA still has the tools to bear fruit.