In less than a month, college basketball teams will be playing 40 minutes in the NCAA tournament that will extend or extinguish their seasons.
A team that flat-out crushed its opposition over five months, won its conference and regular season tournaments and rolled into the NCAAs with just a loss or two could be finished playing before the first weekend is out.
Gonzaga did that last year. A team that went 31-2 in the regular season (16-0 West Coast Conference), was awarded a No. 1 seed but got knocked out by a No. 9 seed in the third round, their second game.
On the other side, an average regular-season team that enters it "hot" has a chance to fight all the way to the pinnacle. UConn's 2011 team with Kemba Walker—a nine loss squad that finished at .500 in the conference—won the Big East Tournament and sprinted all the way to the title.
Because of its stakes and sudden death format, it is the most cruel and thrilling tournament in sports.
A peaking team is one that is playing its style and taking and making the shots it prefers, while forcing opponents into uncomfortable spots. There is an unmistakable flow and confidence to groups that have entered this zone, and it makes all the difference in the world in March.
UCLA has every option in the field available to it, from a deep and swaggering run to a tournament flame-out. What follows is what the Bruins must do to peak during the season's most important month.
It worked in a negative way, like an Abruzzi peasant superstition, when Sean Farnham praised UCLA's defense before last Saturday's game at Stanford.
"UCLA has gotten much better on the defensive end of the floor," Farnham said to Dave Flemming during ESPN's pregame broadcast. "Over these last four weeks their weak-side help defense has really come around."
The Bruins then allowed the Cardinal a 74 percent effective field goal percentage on their home rims at Maples Pavilion. That was a 62 percent true field goal percentage overall and 74 percent after halftime.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, it was the first time Stanford had shot better than 60 percent in a conference game since 2003—11 years ago.
Quite a bit of this sniping was what Stanford did well as opposed to what UCLA did poorly, because no matter how open your jump shot is, you still have to make it. But the Bruins defense was not where it needed to be, and the Cardinal punished them for leaving them room to play their game.
Even though Farnham had hexed his college team, what he said was accurate.
When charted, UCLA's opponent's shooting percentage had declined steadily over four games since the end of January, like a stock with its value being chipped off and carried out the back way. As a direct result, the Bruins had won four straight, against USC, Colorado, Utah and Cal before meeting Stanford.
On the season, the Bruins have been bad. Opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 50 percent, which is 138th worst. They make 24 baskets a game on average—188th worst—including eight 3-pointers, which puts UCLA at an astonishing 338th of 346 Division I teams.
The focused, smart execution of the defensive system with all the little signs of the extra effort thrown in are going to be elemental to this team peaking as the post-season starts. As the Stanford game demonstrated, when it is not there they can be beaten by anybody.
UCLA does a lot of things well, particularly on offense; but on defense, it has been a different story for most of the season.
When you look at the statistician's four factors associated with winning—effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, rebounding percentage and the ratio of free-throw attempts to field goal attempts—the Bruins are great shooting the ball and taking care of the ball. They do not shoot many free throws, but more importantly, their rebounding numbers continue to make them vulnerable.
The Bruins rebounding production is ever-so-slightly misleading, because they shoot the ball so well offensively—fully making 50 percent of their shots—that they have fewer misses to chase over the course of a game. But their 36 total rebounds a game is 111th in the country.
When UCLA does miss, though, its opponents collect 70 percent of the loose balls. The Bruins 30 percent level on the offensive window puts them at 172nd.
Defensively, they have improved at a glacial pace, but as it stands now, they suffer opponents to take nine offensive boards a game (96th)—which is 26 percent of all rebounds available, an almost respectable 40th overall. Increasing their effectiveness here—given that they score 83 points a game—could make an over-sized difference in the season's ultimate final destination.
A constitutional change in the closing two weeks of the regular season is less likely than a failing statistics student passing the final in a winner-takes-all scenario. Luckily for UCLA, rebounding is not the only course a team needs to excel in to win.
If they can get their post players—David and Travis Wear, along with Tony Parker—to even marginally reinforce leading rebounder Kyle Anderson for 40 minutes a night, the Bruins have the acumen in basketball's other disciplines to keep winning games.
The offensive production is high cream across the board, with two crucial statistics in the top ten and two more in the top five.
With the motion system, it is an almost organic thing that sprouts new shoots and strengthens its roots and core over time so long as it is continuously being run the right way. With UCLA head coach Steve Alford monitoring it, there is no doubt that it will be well tended and closely monitored.
As they come into their most mature form over the last month of basketball, more Bruins should be establishing a comfortable place within the repetitive cycles of the offense.
Over the last several weeks, the Wear twins have been the ones to find places they can consistently contribute from.
"They are both doing so much," Alford said to Chris Foster at the Los Angeles Times. "Against Cal, they had four assists and no turnovers. They are making a ton of shots. They are making their foul shots."
Zach LaVine, UCLA's star freshman, had been struggling. Headed into the Bay Area road trip he had shot 6 of 37 over six games. Against Cal he went 2-4 from 3-point range, and against Stanford he was 4-7 from the floor and 2-3 from deep for 14 points.
LaVine's shooting slump begged an obvious question: Why was a super athlete like that loitering away from the rim and firing jump shots to catch fire? Coach Alford noticed a difference in LaVine's approach that began with his turn-around at Cal.
"I thought he was very active cutting against the Bears," said Alford to the LA Times. "He didn't stay on the perimeter, he engaged the defense. Any time you have a player who cares and works hard, good things are going to happen."
All of UCLA's players need to attack the rim more. It is one thing the motion allows for that the Bruins do, and free-throw shooting is a flawless antidote to cold jump shooting. When it was mentioned at the top that the Bruins have unassailable offensive statistics, their free-throw shooting ratio was purposefully left out.
This team shoots their free throws well, making 74 percent. The problem is that they do not shoot enough. The Bruins free throw attempts to field goal attempts ration is .376, which is 254th overall.
On a team that is bristling with attack wings and guards as this one is—Norman Powell, Jordan Adams, Zach LaVine and Kyle Anderson—there is no reason they should not clock double-digits, if not 20-plus points a game, from the charity stripe.
There is a saying: Live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot. The anti-venom to the bite of cold shooting is free throws, and UCLA must shoot more.
There is that cliche about a hotter fire making stronger steel, and this UCLA team should turn the heat up on itself.
There is no way to exactly simulate the 5G pressure of the 40 minutes, one-and-done NCAA tournament game. How could there be? It is the moment when five months of punishing work and the rapid-fire trials of a season are hung in the balance for a single chance to win or go home.
This group can put healthy pressure on themselves to run out the season with momentum, setting the goals of winning the rest of their regular season games and running the table in the conference tournament.
The Bruins have Oregon (6-8 Pac-12) and Oregon State (6-8 Pac-12) this week in Los Angeles. Next week, they finish on the road at Washington State (2-13 Pac-12) and Washington (7-8 Pac-12).
There is no reason they should not beat the Oregon schools at home, and against Oregon State they have revenge to motivate them. The road game at Washington is always hard, no matter the Huskies' record, but UCLA should enter that game fully certain it is the better team. A loss at Washington State is hard to imagine.
At 10-4 in the conference, UCLA trails Arizona (12-2) by two games. The Bruins will need Arizona to lose twice, but what is actually important to their season, is that they are strong enough to go 4-0 and put the pressure on the Wildcats to win out. A second-place conference finish is nothing to be concerned about.
If the Bruins do that then they will be seeded at the bottom of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament bracket with Arizona at the top. That provides the motivation to win two games and meet the Wildcats in the championship, with an opportunity to get back the game they dropped to Arizona in Los Angeles.
If UCLA could run that self-imposed gauntlet, it would be on a seven-game winning streak, with the conference tournament trophy sparkling in the big case back home in Westwood. That is as confident and steeled as this team could be headed into the merciless month of March Madness.