At UCLA, there are always high expectations for Bruins

  • By Bill Plaschke Los Angeles Times
  • Saturday, March 29, 2008 11:13pm
  • SportsSports

PHOENIX — Now, it gets serious. Now, it gets hard.

The Xavier tears are still wet, the UCLA screams are still thumping, the giant powder blue footprint left here Saturday afternoon is still visible and stretching clear to San Antonio.

But lurking underneath the party litter is a party pooper.

The Bruins were not only handed a trophy, but a mandate.

Yes, they have advanced to their third consecutive Final Four.

But, yes, they must win it this time, or history will consider them a bust.

The sweat dripped by ramped-up UCLA in its 76-57 victory over Xavier in the West Regional championship was both overdue and exhilarating.

It was also little more than liquid entry fee to the real games.

Now they are going back to a place that UCLA basketball once owned.

Now they are going back to a place that, for the last two seasons, has treated them like itinerant renters.

Now, it gets real.

“We have to take care of business,” Russell Westbrook said.

He started the Bruins’ engine against Xavier with a game-opening steal, dunk and scream … and this time it counted.

He ended it with 17 points, three assists, three steals and a warning.

“Some of us have never gotten over the bad taste of losing in the Final Four,” Westbrook said. “Now we have a chance to get it out.”

Expecting a championship might not be fair to the UCLA players — only three other schools have advanced to three straight Final Fours since the tournament expanded in 1985.

Expecting a title is really tough on Howland — only two other coaches in that same time period have taken their teams to three consecutive Final Fours.

But this isn’t any other school. This is UCLA. This is part of the deal.

You become a Bruin, you play on a court named after John Wooden, you play in front of alumni that include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you play under flags that celebrate one thing, and one thing only.

“I don’t think we hang up regional championship banners, do we?” Kevin Love said. “We only hang up championship banners, right? That is who we are.”

UCLA has won more national titles than anyone with 11. UCLA has more Final Four wins than anyone with 31.

This is the Bruins’ record 18th Final Four appearance, and never before have they failed to bring home a championship in consecutive years, much less three in a row.

When you come to UCLA, you become not only a beneficiary of this history, but also its caretaker.

And if you think that is unfair, well, there are plenty of Xaviers who would love to have you.

This is not only writer and fan talk, this is player talk.

Just check out the locker room after last year’s semifinal loss to Florida.

“I was telling Luc (Richard Mbah a Moute) the whole season was just erased from us,” Darren Collison said. “And so we don’t ever want to experience that.”

Dan Guerrero, the UCLA athletic director, disagrees.

“In no way, shape or form do we feel that our inability to bring home a championship would be any measure of failure,” he said. “The main thing is, UCLA basketball is back.”

Howland also said such surreal expectations aren’t right.

“That would be very arrogant of me to say that if we didn’t win, it would be a failure,” he said. “What we’ve accomplished, just getting there three consecutive years, is very, very difficult.”

Mbah a Moute, one of the few Bruins who has been to all three Final Fours, put it more simply.

“Around here, just going to the Final Four doesn’t cut it,” he said.

In addressing UCLA fans afterward, Howland seemed happy with yet another answered dream, but immediately addressed the reality.

“There is still work to be done,” Howland shouted into a microphone.

For the first time since the tournament started, the Bruins seem to have both the body and soul for that work.

Their defensive energy returned for 40 minutes against Xavier as they held the Musketeers to 36 percent shooting.

“We had our wake-up calls,” Love said. “From the first play today, I knew our intensity was back.”

The soul of their interior also returned, with Mbah a Moute finally playing like his sprained ankle has healed, with 13 points and 13 rebounds.

“I kept telling everyone I would be fine,” he said with a smile.

Their guard play also returned, with Collison and Westbrook combining to hit 14-of-23 shots, including four of six three pointers.

“Definitely this win feels good, but we’re not satisfied,” Collison said.

According to Howland, in three years, this is his best Final Four team.

“We have all that experience,” he said. “And we added the great big man.”

That big man, Love, was so excited at one point Saturday, he actually danced across the court with fists pumping and voice shouting.

But, later, standing in a surprisingly quiet locker room with a single strand of snipped net in his souvenir cap, he was calm.

“That was great out there,” he said. “But now it’s about something else.”

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