There are always questions—but these are meant to be burning questions. The careful reader will find a bad cliche or two about heat branded into the parchment—see what I've done there already?
UCLA is 17-5 (6-3 Pac-12), with nine games to play out the regular season. The casual observer might say they have been inconsistent, but the connoisseur knows it is the opposite: They have been consistently good, but never great, and sometimes bad. They have done this over and over like a pattern on a quilt.
The chance is still there to finish second in the Pac-12. That is good, considering the formidable strength of the team at the top of the league (considerably diminished with the bad luck loss of Brandon Ashley for the season).
These are five burning questions about the Bruins' season. The answers will be revealed over five weeks on hardwood floors across the American West.
How is that for a broken-down and cliched sports metaphor to open up a piece?
The fact is that there is truth expressed in it—and it gets at something that causes a worry in the pit of the stomach about this team: Does it have the right kind of experience amongst its ranks to make it hard and indestructible?
Great teams can be beaten but they cannot be broken. A loss simply means that they ran out of time to win, not that their book has been written and their story ended badly. They will go on the rest of their lives believing it was a fluke that got them, a bad circumstance or just a poor performance that they would give anything to get a chance to make right.
The three teams UCLA sent to the Final Fours in 2006, 2007 and 2008 had this. They were beaten, once in the final game and twice in the semifinals, but not broken apart. Their attitude, their toughness and their hard plating came in the three years prior to those tournament runs, from 2003-2005.
Those players felt the embarrassing pain of a losing record in 2004 (UCLA's second in 56 seasons) and a first round NCAA tournament loss in 2005. That hurt and tarnished pride went to practice everyday with a roster of players—Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Arron Afflalo, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata-Real, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and several others—capable of feeling tremendous athletic hurt and built with a vast amount of athletic pride.
The friction of hurt and pride caused heat, and that heat made those teams hard, durable, unflappable, indestructible and set them on a mission that they focused on with a certain ruthlessness of purpose. They came up short, but they battled with absolute abandon until the axe fell.
This team has the hurt, definitely, and the disappointment; but does it have the pride and talent to turn the disappointment into something enduring? It is certainly an abstract concept, but its pitch is unmistakable and rings absolutely true in the right ear.
This team shows a mixed record on its past performance chart that makes it difficult to handicap its future games.
They have won at Colorado and Oregon—two good teams and tough road wins. But they have lost at Utah and Oregon State—bad and ugly road upsets.
Each loss was the second game of the Pac-12's two-game road trip format. Each showed hallmarks of good, but not great, college teams: Inconsistency and a difficulty with getting fired up to play dull games in hostile gyms. The Bruins moved sluggishly through both, struggled to score points and allowed weak teams to feel strong.
Kyle Anderson is the only UCLA player with the skill and experience to attack these games like they mean the world. UCLA needs more than one on its roster. Bryce Alford is another player who is himself whatever the external circumstances might be, but Alford is a role-playing point guard and not someone to carry a team to wins.
This is a very bad thing—dull road games are where league championships are won and lost. Who else is going to be there, caring enough about it to protect the Bruins position in the league, to help Anderson?
UCLA has road weekends ahead across town at USC, in the San Francisco Bay Area for Cal and Stanford and the traditional year-end road trip to Washington for the Huskies and Cougars.
The Bruins easily beat the Bay teams in Los Angeles—why shouldn't they do it up north? They have always struggled in Seattle and rarely struggled in Pullman, though last year's worst loss came at Washington State—anything can happen. Losing to this USC team is unacceptable.
UCLA should go 4-1 on the road to finish the season, but 5-0 would be better. You pick the loss. Any more than one would mean there was another poor showing from a team that should know better by now.
A second place finish in the Pac-12 and a second seed in the Pac-12 Tournament puts UCLA on a path toward a rematch against Arizona. This is what the Bruins want.
By just a quirk and non-existent foresight from the schedule makers, the Pac-12's best rivalry was only played once during the regular season. It was, predictably, the second best league game of the year—right behind Cal-Berkeley's upset over Arizona when Justin Cobbs daggered a fade at the buzzer.
Arizona—UCLA deserves a second edition.
Not being a bracketologist, I cannot tell you where UCLA will be seeded in the NCAA tournament. The more the season goes on though, the more it feels like they will earn one of those dreaded, upset-rich five, six or seven seeds. The conference tournament is a chance to better that by a crucial one or two places.
Also, there is unfinished business. UCLA stormed back into that game against Arizona in Los Angeles, making up 13 points in less than five minutes and retaking the lead before falling, 79-75. The Bruins can beat Arizona, and they know it. The conference championship game would be a great place to do it, and a number two seed gives them the best chance.
Kyle Anderson is mostly a stoical, business-like competitor, flashing signs of happiness or rage but always quickly getting back to the hard work of winning games.
The difference with him though is that the business of winning is a smoldering volcano inside him. Anderson reaches an almost fugue-state during games in which a separate personality emerges capable of anything for furthering the quest. It is a sort of disease that you find from time to time in sports, and constantly when you are visiting the halls of champions.
Who else does this team have like that? There are super players, Jordan Adams comes immediately to mind, and he may be the second most like Anderson on the team, but there is a difference between the two. Zach LaVine has a certain amount of it, but he is a true freshman who is still working out the shape of his game at this level.
There are competitors, no doubt, but do they care like Anderson cares? As much as he matters in games, Anderson is just as important in practice. It is accepted historical record that the best teams attack each other like enemies in practice. It is that old bromide about steel sharpening steel. It is another true cliche.
I know Anderson goes at people every time he plays—but how many UCLA players are mean enough to do that to their friends and teammates for the bigger goal of getting better? They have to become that way if they are going to get anywhere.
This team's biggest problem is on the interior, everyone who watches them play quickly learns that.
If the guards have a difficult time scoring, the team drops a game. If the guards are good and making buckets, the front-court only has to be OK for the team to win.
Tony Parker is the sole true post who gets any minutes on this team, and they are limited by foul trouble and general confusion to about 19 a game. Freshman Wanaah Bail is barely available, playing less than seven minutes.
The Wear twins, who get about 22 minutes each, play stretches where they look like offensive and defensive rebounders and rim protectors, but then they drift back outside to shoot a long jump shot or get hip-checked out of the way under the rim. There are nights when the twins make all the difference on the interior and play the role this team needs them to play to win—but those nights are exceptions to the general rule.
It falls, then, to Parker, which is what scares everybody. He has not, in his sophomore season, put a whole lot together. This does not bother him, according to Ryan Kartje over at the O.C. Register.
Parker takes everything pretty easily. He fouls out after five avoidable hacks, he smiles and laughs. He rebounds and scores, he smiles and laughs more. He seems like a damn nice kid. But what does that mean for UCLA's season?