This wasn't the way the season was supposed to go for the Bruins. Despite losing a bevy of talent, UCLA was still expected to stand tall. The Bruins don't rebuild, they reload. The freshman class led by Jrue Holiday was supposed to be Ben Howland's best yet and the team was supposed to look forward to a fourth consecutive Final Four.
But it hasn't worked out that way.
The Bruins are 15-4, 5-2 in the Pac-10 and ranked No. 17 in the country. That's a good year. If you are Oregon State, or one of the other teams in the Pac-10. But this is UCLA. A place where only championship banners hang from the rafters. Something, however, is way worse for UCLA. Something nobody in Westwood is comfortable talking about.
The Bruins are mortal.
The Bruins have been like that bully over the past couple of years. The tough guy standing in the corner that nobody wanted a piece of. Now, teams not only want a piece of the Bruins, they are relishing the chance. The Bruins are being challenged in what was supposed to be a down year in the conference. Washington took them apart in Seattle. Arizona State embarrassed the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion.
Right there on the Nell and John Wooden Court, the Sun Devils exploited the Bruins, like UCLA had done to so many over matched opponents in the past.
Part of the reason is the departure of Kevin Love, who toils in obscurity in the NBA. UCLA no longer has that inside presence or that ability to pound the ball down low. The Bruins used to live at the free-throw line. Now they have a bunch of jump shooters who don't draw fouls. Not the way Love did. Nikola Dragovic is a nice player, but he's one of those European players who seems to avoid contact.
At this point, Darren Collison might be wondering why he didn't go to the NBA. (Not that he had much of a choice.)
There is still hope for the Bruins. They have a chance to reassert themselves as they play host to Cal and Stanford this weekend. Cal has been playing very well under coach Mike Montgomery, and it also possesses the same propensity to shoot the three-ball, which could work in UCLA's favor.
And the Bruins need it, too.
No. 23 Washington will play host to No. 14 Arizona State on Thursday. Raise your hands if you thought that this was going to be for the lead in the Pac-10 at this juncture of the season. Liar.
Both teams have beaten the Bruins -- as mentioned -- and could take control of the conference. To be honest, nobody is going to run away with the league crown. But Washington and Arizona State are feeling UCLA's vulnerability and can only can confidence with a victory. A sweep by either school would be monumental.
UCLA needs to make a stand against the Bay Area schools to keep pace. Worse than losing ground in the standings is losing presence in the conference. The Bruins need to make a good showing this weekend.