After finishing the season on a high note by notching a Pac-12 regular-season title, UCLA gets down to business on Thursday as it commences postseason play with a conference tournament matchup against Arizona State.
While the Bruins have done well to revamp their image and garner considerable momentum heading into March Madness, they are nevertheless surrounded with questions as they make their way toward the Big Dance.
This UCLA team, stacked with highly touted recruits Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, and Shabazz Muhammad, certainly has the raw talent to make some noise in Pac-12 Tournament and ensuing NCAA Tournament.
It’s an exciting notion to ponder for Ben Howland and his Bruins, who have not achieved any success in the big tourney since now-NBA star Kevin Love led UCLA to the Final Four in 2008.
Yet, as we’ve seen year after year, it takes a certain beast to endure the madness of March.
Talent alone doesn’t quite cut it.
The one-and-done culture of college basketball has changed the dynamics of the Tournament and reiterated a very important point.
This tournament is about experience.
Early departures of star players have opened the field up for teams with talented upperclassmen like Butler to make it to the NCAA Championship in consecutive years. Experience and wisdom give teams an imperative edge in the Big Dance.
Enter Larry Drew II, UCLA’s senior point guard.
On a team with talented but inexperienced young players, Drew has played a vital role for the Bruins all season as their sole upperclassman leader. Not only has he set the tone for the team with his persistent defense, but he has also guided them through tight situations with the game on the line.
In addition to being a leader, Drew has allowed his teammates to shine all season long by dishing out a conference-leading 7.7 assists per game.
As tremendous as freshman guards Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams have been this season, they wouldn’t have been able to achieve the success they did without Drew finding them shots in the half-court set.
UCLA’s freshmen guards have proved themselves to be as talented as they were hyped to be, but they have also proved their naïveté as young players in their first seasons at the college level.
With three freshmen and reserved junior forward Travis Wear in the starting lineup, Drew will be the Bruins’ most important player in the postseason, as he has been all season long.
His influence won’t stop at his leadership, though.
Although he struggled with his jumper in the early stages of the season, which allowed defenders to give him a cushion, Drew found his shot in the second half of conference play.
In his last seven games, the 6’2” guard—who grew up less than 15 miles from UCLA’s campus—shot an accurate 49 percent from the floor and a stellar 63 percent from beyond the arc, becoming the Bruins’ most accurate three-point shooter at a cumulative 41.8 percent on the season.
That’s a stat the opposition won’t ignore, and Drew will certainly be guarded tightly in the postseason, which will allow UCLA to keep its offense spread.
Moreover, Drew has proved to be a clutch player who keeps calm under pressure.
He demonstrated this when he knocked down a buzzer-beating fall-away jumper to send UCLA to victory over the visiting Washington Huskies in early February. Drew remained confident in himself as he took the ball up the court with poise, convinced that he could lead his team to victory despite insistent calls for the ball from teammate Shabazz Muhammad.
And that’s exactly who will take the big shot when the game is on the line in the postseason.
Drew has helped shine the spotlight on his teammates all season long, but it is he who will have the spotlight shining bright on him as UCLA makes its way through the postseason.