In the world of March Madness, there is one key element that invariably translates to success. This element of success is a trait that never shows up in the box scores, it can't be quantified by a statistician and a coach can't simply instruct a young, budding player with all the potential in the world of this element, unless he already has it in him.
We saw this essential element of success in the Kansas' of '08, the Florida's of '07 and '06, the UNC's of '05 and so on. The one crucial element that links all of these great teams together: Leadership.
There is no better elixir for a team going through the doldrums of the PAC-10 regular season like leadership. Leadership can come from anywhere on the court, but the first place I would look is towards the seniors on a given team.
On paper, a team like the UCLA Bruins look primed for the fourth consecutive Final Four and beyond.
They have three senior starters to go along with three upperclassmen role players with multiple Final Four experience. Combine that aspect with one of the most highly-touted, athletic freshman classes in all the land, and you have a spicy cocktail for a No. 1 seed brewing.
If only everything was as it seems. With three-fourths of UCLA's PAC-10 season over, the UCLA Bruins are currently projected as a seven seed in the tournament and are on pace to break their streak of PAC-10 championships at three. Going into the desert series with UA/ASU in mid-February, UCLA looked ready to make the leap from hopeful to contender.
Not only did they just come off a tough homestretch where they defeated Cal, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame, but their offense was looking as fine-tuned as a crunchy riff spewed out by the great Jimmy Page.
But it is here that the Bruins hit a destructive roadblock that brought the Bruin's one seed and PAC-10 title hopes to a screeching halt.
Losing both away games put UCLA (20-7, 9-5) tied for third in the PAC-10 standings with Cal (20-7, 9-5), behind Washington (20-7, 11-4) and ASU (21-5, 10-4). Having lost three of four games to the two teams ahead of them, UCLA pretty much needs a scriptural-scale miracle, which will certainly then lead to the beatification of John Robert Wooden.
The past three years, UCLA has dealt their brand of leadership through ferocious on-the-ball defense that would lead to opposing team's constantly turning the ball over and scores in the low 60s. This was led by established Ben Howland warriors like Aaron Afflalo, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute.
All three of these former Bruins were bloodthirsty, lockdown defenders that would instill fear in anyone who was matched up against them. They routinely defended that opposing team's best player and would always come out on top. They took personal offense to the opposing player driving the lane or spotting up for a three.
This type of defensive presence spilled over to the rest of team and a follow-by-example type effect would take place. The Bruins on the court would constantly try to outdo each other, and stats such as blocks, steals and charges would be just as important (if not more important considering their defensive-minded coach) as points and assists.
It is this defensive leadership that lead the past three UCLA Bruins teams to the holy grail known as the Final Four.
Currently the UCLA Bruins, led by a bevy of potential PAC-10 first-teamers like Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya and Josh Shipp, look more like an offensive team rather than the defensive team everybody expects.
For the first time in the illustrious Ben Howland era, UCLA's scoring offense (43) is ranked higher than their scoring defense (68).
Both numbers certainly do not seem very lofty, and that can be attributed to their lack of leadership on defense. During stretches of any given game it appears that there is no leadership demanding maximum effort on every possession of the game., which is essential for Ben Howland's brand of defense.
Their on the ball defense is what creates the turnovers that allows for large point swings that put the game out hand. Without maximum effort from defenders there are no turnovers and there are no point swings.
This causes games to be close at the end, and UCLA does not have that go-to offensive presence on the team that can create a shot whenever the ball is in his hands (a la Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook).
Maximum effort is something that cannot be taught, but only comes from within. It takes leadership to bring out that maximum effort, and this is the time of the year that we find out what kind of leadership a player possess.
UCLA still has a chance to make some serious noise in March but in order to get there, UCLA must look toward their recent predecessors and learn how a Ben Howland style defense is truly accomplished.
It is that style of defense that got them to the Final Four three years running, and it is this style of defense that can get them there again.
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