The players know it, the fans know it, Dick Vitale knows it and by the time both polls have come out today everybody else is going to know it, too.
They’re No. 1.
UCLA’s basketball team, I mean. It’s the whole package.
With fine players at every position, with follow-me leadership from Ed O’Bannon, with an excellent bench, with tenacious defense and with a finishing kick worthy of Secretariat, the Bruins proved they are the team everybody else will be aiming at when the NCAA Tournament starts in three weeks.
But as UCLA finished up a rugged stretch of five games in 11 days with a 100-77 pounding of Duke on Sunday, it displayed one key additional indication of its exalted status.
Its coach publicly signed on as a believer, too.
For once, Jim Harrick didn’t act as if the idea of being the guy in the center of the target was so distasteful. For once, he didn’t act as if every game his team plays is the same as every other game. For once, he didn’t act as if UCLA hasn’t proven anything yet.
Not that Harrick made any outrageous claims that could end up on some future opponent’s bulletin board, you understand. Not that he didn’t say his first goal was to win the Pac-10 title and his next one was to get a top seed in the tournament and then to go to Seattle and see what it could do about winning the whole thing. Not that he didn’t say the polls don’t mean anything, even when they name you No. 1 in March.
But for those who were waiting for Harrick to revert to his customary hyper-cautious form, for those who expected a veiled reference or two to the perils of March Madness, he had a different message instead.
“This team gives me a lot of confidence,” he said.
And now it is his job to return the favor.
Last season, when UCLA’s players stepped out on the floor for their first tournament game against Tulsa, they acted for all the world as if they were nervous, uncomfortable and totally unprepared.
“As a whole, I think our team wasn’t really confident or aggressive,” said O’Bannon, who scored a career-high 37 points against Duke and who stepped up as much as any player possibly could during the Bruins’ sweep of Arizona State, Arizona, Stanford, Cal and Duke.
But Harrick seems determined not to let that happen this time and perhaps that accounts for the fact he is now sticking out his jaw and striking a more defiant pose.
“How can they shoot any harder than they shot the last five games,” he said when asked if being on top of the heap bothers him. “These guys like to play. They enjoyed last week. They were out of school and having a ball. We’re just having a good time.”
Would Harrick actually go so far as to say UCLA deserved to be No. 1 in the country? Would he say he welcomed it? Well, no. That would be going too far.
But he did go out on a limb and say O’Bannon is clearly the best college player in America today and that his performance in the last five games has propelled the Bruins into being as consistent as any team around.
O’Bannon, for his part, seemed hungry for what lies ahead.
“We worked hard for it and we’re going to try to keep it,” the senior forward said of his team’s No.1 status.
The important thing now is for Harrick to keep that kind of confidence and aggressiveness at a high level. Now that UCLA is No. 1, he needs to say, there isn’t a reason in the world it shouldn’t go out and play like it.
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