I have some bad news for UCLA fans: I’m about to kill your season by picking the Bruins to take the 2008 title.
Please don’t consider this a bandwagon pick, although it’s true UCLA became my “favorite” college team, and I watched the Bruins more than every other ’08 team combined. Up until two weekends ago, I didn’t think they had enough to win six straight March Madness games because of the way they struggled to get easy baskets. But UCLA’s biggest handicap eventually morphed into its biggest strength — the Bruins don’t have a low-post stud (like Michael Beasley) or an ankle-breaking perimeter guy (like Jerryd Bayless), but they do have a team full of “MacGyvers.” And it’s one of those college seasons where the best MacGyver team is going to win.
Remember MacGyver? He wasn’t a stereotypical action hero and saved the world with whatever gadgets he could whip up on the fly, but the point was, he did keep saving the world. That’s how UCLA plays. Maybe the Bruins don’t have that killer offensive player or shoot 3-pointers consistently well, but they have a knack for making big plays in big moments even if it’s a game-winning basket where they grab two offensive rebounds and rescue a pass that bounced off someone’s face before the winning hoop gets scored. Everything you need to know about UCLA’s season happened in the Cal game two weeks ago. Down four with 20 seconds left, Kevin Love nailed a Laimbeer-like 3-pointer with a hand in his face. Somehow, the Bruins stole the ball on the ensuing possession after two of their players legally assaulted Cal’s Ryan Anderson, and then, Josh Shipp made the game winner on an illegal prayer over the backboard. That was the ultimate MacGyver victory.
But here’s what everyone missed from that game: If you watch the replay of the illegal shot that never should have counted because everyone and their brother know you can’t shoot over the backboard, even as Shipp is driving baseline and preparing to hoist The Shot That Never Should Have Counted, everyone was watching him except for Love, who bullied himself underneath the basket before the ball was even released. Had there been a bounce, Love would have tipped it in.
The point is, the UCLA guys think of this stuff. Constantly. You could attribute this to good coaching — and you’d be partially right, since there isn’t a better college coach than Ben Howland right now — but UCLA targets a specific type of kid, players who think about things like, “If this shot doesn’t go in, I’m tipping it in” even before the shot has unfolded. I started watching the Bruins because of Love, a unique player and a joy to watch on the college level, but my favorite player ended up being Russell Westbrook, a sophomore guard who played point for the first six games when Darren Collison was injured. He’s one of those “10th Impression Guys” — someone you like a little more each of the first nine times, and then by the 10th time, you suddenly realize, “All right, why isn’t anyone talking about how good this guy is?”
It’s a little bittersweet to write about him because, for the first two months of the season, Westbrook was my megasleeper for the 2008 NBA draft. I just loved him. He’s one of those guys who defies every statistical measure — there’s no stat for “momentum-swinging dunks in traffic to ignite the crowd,” and there’s no stat for “the guy who brings stuff to the table and takes absolutely nothing off the table,” and there’s no stat for “guy who makes the biggest play of the game by tipping a rebound to a teammate for a dunk.” He’s just an old-school basketball player with ridiculous hops and a great work ethic, a little like Manu Ginobili or Tayshaun Prince in that you need to watch him a few times to fully appreciate him. So when Chad Ford trotted out a mock draft three weeks ago and divulged that Westbrook was the draft’s fast riser and potentially a top-seven pick, I was crushed. I mean, he was my guy! Nobody had him in their top 20 until the Super Bowl! I was going to spend the whole NCAA tournament singing his praises! I felt like one of those college grads who sees his favorite band from college in the top 5 on iTunes.
As well as Westbrook played this season, UCLA didn’t totally take off until Collison regained his confidence during the latter part of the season. I really liked Collison last season and thought he could have been a late-round steal had he entered the ’07 draft. But the Westbrook thing (and his injury, of course) robbed him of some confidence; by mid-February, he wasn’t even listed as a first-rounder on most boards. And then, just like that, he turned into the old Collison again — pushing the ball, beating guys off the dribble, creating shots for teammates, banging home 3s and all the other little things. The Bruins still get too many baskets off broken plays and have to work extra hard for quality shots because they don’t have a prototypical deadeye to stretch defenses — actually, they DID have that shooter until they lost Michael Roll for the season — but if Collison keeps playing out of his mind like he did in the last Stanford game, I feel better about them in crunch time even if they’re not draining 3s.
SPORTS GUY’S PICKS
As the Madness begins Thursday, Bill Simmons offers this forecast for the 2008 NCAA tournament:
ROUND OF 32
East: UNC over Indiana; Washington State over Notre Dame; Louisville over St. Joe’s; Tennessee over Butler
Midwest: Kansas over Kent State; Clemson over Vandy; USC over Wisconsin; Davidson over Georgetown
South: Memphis over Oregon; Pitt over Temple; Stanford over Marquette; St. Mary’s over Texas
West: UCLA over Brigham Young; Drake over San Diego; Xavier over Baylor; Duke over West Virginia
East: UNC over Washington State; Tennessee over Louisville
Midwest: Clemson over Kansas; USC over Davidson.
South: Pitt over Memphis; Stanford over St. Mary’s
West: UCLA over Drake; Duke over Xavier
East: Tennessee over UNC
Midwest: USC over Clemson
South: Pitt over Stanford
West: UCLA over Duke
Tennessee over USC; UCLA over Pitt
UCLA 77, Tennessee 70
And then there’s the most polarizing NBA prospect of this decade, someone who’s inevitably going to look awful in workouts (except for shooting drills) and runs like he’s trying to find a bathroom. Yeah, Kevin Love is slow. Yeah, he can’t jump. Yeah, he doesn’t run as much as he waddles. Yeah, some NBA guys will abuse him on the low post, so you’d have to protect him with double-teams and a shot-blocker if you had one. Yeah, he’s probably not posting up that many folks in the pros. Unlike Westbrook, Love brings a ton of stuff to the table but takes off some forks and a couple of knives and maybe even a dinner plate. I concede all of these things.
Just know this: Love always gets his 17-10 (at least) no matter whom the Bruins are playing. He’s always in the right place at the right time. He always seems to get garbage points and tip-ins even when he’s surrounded by three guys. He’s a naturally gifted rebounder, averaging more than 10 boards in just 29 minutes a game this season. He’s an absolutely outrageous passer, unquestionably the best passing college center since since I can’t even remember. He’s a natural 3-point shooter and even makes them with a hand in his face. Over the past 25 years, you could say this about only two other big guys (Bill Laimbeer and Rasheed Wallace). His teams always seem to win (dating back to high school), and if you’re worried about Love’s toughness, check out the box score of his “coming home” game when Oregon’s bitter students tore into him for three consecutive hours and crossed every conceivable fan-player line except for throwing things at him and he responded with an Eff-You Game (26 points, 18 rebounds, 8-for-11 from the field).
Best of all, there’s his ongoing homage to Wes Unseld — those incredible half-court and full-court outlet passes, the single best thing about his game and something that has become more and more effective as the season wore on and his teammates started realizing, “They just missed. I gotta start running. I might get a dunk here.”
In an ideal world, Love would remain in college and work on his low-post game, his footwork and his Color Me Badd beard. In a realistic world, he’s bolting for the pros and destined to kick off a holy war on ESPN.com between me and Chad Ford. (Kevin, if you’re reading this: On the day you declare for the draft, you should put on a Vlad Radmanovic wig and announce you’re changing your name to Kevino Lovavich. You’ll move up eight spots on Chad’s board. Aloha, Kevino Lovavich! Whoops, the holy war has begun. Bring it on, Chad! We’re fighting to the death on this one.) But I have a feeling that, in three weeks, everyone will feel dumb for not including him in the first group of “Fantastic Freshmen!” stories this week. As a college player, he’s every bit as effective as Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose, and if you’re looking for statistical evidence to back this up, just check the Bruins’ record (three losses), their seed (No. 1 in the West) and the way they finished the season (10 straight wins against the ferociously good Pac-10).
One final thing about UCLA
I remember liking their uniforms and growing up with their legacy of dominance, but the Wooden Era slightly predated me as a basketball fan. I remember watching Marques Johnson and Reggie Miller play at UCLA, and I remember the ’95 team winning the title with the O’Bannons, but I can’t say I ever put a ton of thought into UCLA basketball until recently — partly because of HBO’s excellent special on the Wooden Era last year, partly because of my admittedly pathetic jump on the Bruins bandwagon this year. Watching them on a regular basis, what’s startled me is how much UCLA resembles a college version of the Celtics. (Important note: Every die-hard Bruins fans just read that last sentence and thought, “Wait, it’s more like the Celtics are like a professional version of us!”) The Bruins and Celtics have the same storied history, the same great fans, the same consistency with their uniforms, the same legacy that lingers over everything (and brings its own unique pressure). The Wooden-Auerbach parallels go without saying, as do the Russell-Walton/Kareem parallels.
But what really reminds me of the Celtics are their home games. Coming back from commercial, the cameras will scan the crowd and you’ll invariably see a UCLA legend crammed into the stands with the students. During any given game, it might be Kareem, Walton, Marques Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Warren regardless, seeing those faces never fails to give you a sense that, “Hey, basketball mattered here once, and it matters right now.” The Celtics have that same dynamic; when the playoffs roll around, if you think the team won’t be playing the Russell/Cooz/Hondo/K.C./Jo-Jo/Heinsohn card and planting those guys in visible seats, you’re crazy.
It’s one thing to root for a team that’s good. It’s another thing to root for a team that truly mattered once upon a time. For every Celtics fan, this season has been special not because of the winning as much as the familiarity of everything that’s happening. You grow up with a great team, you take it for granted, and then it’s taken away and you spend the next few years thinking, “Wow, I wish I had appreciated that a little more.” And just like that, one day, it’s back in your life. For the UCLA fans, the Howland Era brought them that same gift, and out of all the neat subplots about the 2008 basketball season — college and pro — there’s an undeniable symmetry to the UCLA Bruins and Boston Celtics being on top of their respective worlds again.
Anyway, I don’t have a favorite college basketball team and it’s too late to pick one now. When I was growing up, my dad and I rooted for Holy Cross (his school) and Boston College (the local school). The Cross faded out of the picture and the Simmons family continued to root for Boston College until I went to H.C. and turned against B.C. in a lame attempt to keep that dormant rivalry alive. Dad continues to root for both schools, although there’s not much to follow at Holy Cross ever since the administration decided to murder its sports program once and for all. (You know, because it’s so difficult for a college that charges $50,000 a year for tuition to keep alive a hoops program that once gave the world Tommy Heinsohn and Bob Cousy.) So I’m a man without a college team, and it’s probably always going to be that way unless little LaBill Simmons ends up playing Division I somewhere in 17 years.
But I guess what I’m trying to say is this: If I did pick a college team to adopt, I’d pick UCLA. Since it’s too late for me, the least I can do is make the Bruins my pick for the 2008 title. Admittedly, the prediction hinges entirely on Luc Mbah a Moute’s return from an ankle injury. If he can’t return at full strength before the Elite Eight, or even relatively close to full strength, someone will eventually beat them because he’s the glue to their defense, as well as a mortal lock to have his name pronounced 27 different ways by Dick Enberg throughout the tournament. On the other hand, that’s the great thing about this particular college season — at least seven schools have a genuine chance to win the championship, and each of them has one or two major “ifs.” If UCLA’s biggest “if” depends on its toughest player gritting his way through an injury for two weeks, I’ll take my chances.
So, I’m going with UCLA over Tennessee in the title game. If you have that as your final as well, set your pool on fire right now because that’s the most fun you’ll have with it. I’m never right about anything. Then again, even Kwame Brown grabs a rebound every once in a while. You never know.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.