I don’t know about the rest of the Big Blue Nation, but I’m really looking forward to this tilt with the UCLA Bruins on Saturday
night afternoon. This is a chance to see the two teams with the most NCAA Tournament championships — a combined 19 between them — face off against each other.
This season, the Bruins started off out of the rankings, then moved into the top 25 in week three when a bunch of their peers in the poll lost and dropped out. Unfortunately, that was to be a short-lived recognition.
Consecutive losses to the Oklahoma Sooners and North Carolina Tar Heels at a neutral site, both by double digits, doomed the Bruins to fall precipitously. Ken Pomeroy now has them at #44 overall having beaten some relatively easy opponents at home, then losing, again by double digits, to the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Kentucky connection there is hard to miss for anyone paying attention, and Kyle Wiltjer lit up the Bruins for 24 points, shooting lights out from both 2 and 3.
SB Nation’s UCLA site is Bruins Nation, and they are one of the very first sites to join the network way back when, and unless I am mistaken the very first college site. They have been friends with A Sea of Blue for a long time, and even though my old blog pal Nestor has moved on this summer to other things and left the business of running the site to other capable people, BN is still a fine blog with a definite point of view on the basketball team and how it has fared under Steve Alford, and does a great job of covering UCLA sports in general.
All this aside, I love the idea of playing UCLA, because of their history. I remember most of their NCAA championships, and I especially remember the 1975 NCAA championship game where the Bruins, in John Wooden’s final game, defeated the Kentucky Wildcats in San Diego. I was so disappointed in that loss, even though I could never bring myself to be angry with Wooden or his team, because I always admired UCLA’s history and success.
Other than the Louisville Cardinals, this might be the game I have looked forward to the most this season just because of the Bruins’ history and their domination of college basketball during my formative years. Yes, I cheered against Bill Walton & Co. when they faced North Carolina State in the 1974 Final Four, because my favorite player ever as a young man was David Thompson. That remained true throughout his professional career.
There is just so much of my childhood wrapped up in UCLA lore, even more than Kentucky. Yes, UK was always there, but the Bruins got all the headlines, played the biggest of big games, and were the name on everyone’s lips when college basketball was discussed during my formative years. Before I moved to Kentucky in 1970, all I every heard was UCLA this and UCLA that.
Now, things have come full circle. UCLA is still there, but Kentucky’s name is on everyone’s lips. It is Kentucky who is a perennial Final Four and championship team, and it is Kentucky who is making a major move to catch UCLA’s NCAA Tournament record. It is Kentucky who winds up in the biggest of the big games.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the two teams reached these heights in exactly the same way despite being so different — by getting the best players in the country to come play for them. Coach Wooden used to be the guy who seemed to pick and choose the players he would have for his team, and now it seems to be Coach Cal. The culture of the two schools couldn’t be more disparate — UCLA is an urbane institution in the center of a teeming metropolis, and Kentucky is surrounded by rustic horse farms and southern pastoral living. The contrast has always been stark between the two most successful NCAA Tournament programs, and all the more interesting for it.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, this is a game to look forward to, and to celebrate whatever the outcome. Kentucky will doubtless be a significant favorite, and deserves to be, but I never write off an opponent, particularly one as talented and tradition-rich as the UCLA Bruins.
I can hardly wait.