Stephen Brashear/Associated Press
This team found a path through an entire season that marked no outstanding or signature victories while managing to make itself a stone lock for the NCAA tournament—a rare accomplishment in an age of microscopic analytics and scrutiny.
The schedule did not allow the Bruins many trials to test themselves against the best competition, but the three it did allow for each ended in defeat. The losses to Duke in New York City and Arizona in Los Angeles did not hurt anything.
The 80-63 loss to the Blue Devils was as much the product of a flurry of meaningless baskets to end the game. The score was tied at the half, and the actual margin of defeat seemed more like seven points than 17.
Against Arizona in a 79-75 defeat, the Bruins were a big shot or two away from knocking off the undefeated, No. 1 team in America. It was proof that UCLA could survive in the cage with anybody.
The road loss at Mizzou is the best negative example this team has of losing an edge in a big game. UCLA led 43-35 at the half and then blew a tire in the second half, got outscored 45-28 and lost 80-71. Unless the Tigers win the SEC tournament, they will not be invited to the NCAAs this year.
It was a golden opportunity for a good road win that UCLA was not mentally prepared to compete for over 40 minutes.
The more poignant example this group made that it was missing the nebulous quality of competitive excellence were the losses in the second game of every Pac-12 road trip.
The Bruins finished in second place with six conference losses but could have won the league outright for the second straight season if they had taken care of business on the road. Instead, they lost at Utah after beating Colorado, at Oregon State after beating Oregon, at Stanford after beating Cal and at Washington State after beating Washington.
Utah finished eighth, Oregon State finished 10th, Stanford finished sixth and Washington State finished 11th in the league. UCLA should have won every one of those games, or lost just one, and celebrated with its 32nd regular season conference championship.
What was below board from a competitive perspective was that this team knew it was on the home stretch and just a few paces off the lead all along. Why wasn't that enough motivation to bring a winning team together to finish the race at full speed and steal a conference crown from Arizona, the prohibitive favorite all season long? Everything was there for this group to show a championship swagger, but it all slipped away.
None of this means anything when the ball goes up for the NCAA tournament, but this is the only season with past performances to evaluate before the madness begins in March.