LOS ANGELES -- Since the end of the John Wooden era, creating a new legacy has been difficult at UCLA, a fact that became tangible Thursday night when the university retired the jersey of legendary Bruin Jamaal Wilkes at halftime of UCLA’s 74-64 victory over Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion.
The victory was the 10th in a row for the Bruins. It's a streak that might make for some smiles and pats on the back at other places, but when you do it in front of a man who was once part of an 88-game win streak, those back slaps become slaps back to reality.
And that’s kind of what the Bruins (15-3, 5-0 Pac-12) are facing right now: The grim reality is they haven’t yet accomplished anything. Despite the 10-game streak, UCLA’s longest since 2008-09, they are an unproven commodity.
Of those 10 wins, the only one that really stands out is the 97-94 overtime victory over Missouri. Others have come in nail-biting fashion against inferior competition, and the Bruins have shown a disturbing tendency to let down late in games after building a big lead.
The next two games will tell all for the Bruins -- a Saturday showdown against No. 21 Oregon and then a Jan. 24 road trip to Tucson for a matchup with No. 7 Arizona should decide once and for all where this team sits in terms of the Pac-12 title race and the quest for a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Even now, with one of the longest active win streaks in the nation and the first 5-0 start in conference play since Ben Howland’s inaugural 2003-04 season, the jury is out on these Bruins.
“We haven’t really proven anything yet,” said forward Shabazz Muhammad, who led UCLA with 21 points Thursday night. “We won 10 games but we’re looking forward to playing Oregon and Arizona. Those are the best of the best, and we’re going to test ourselves and see where we are as a team.”
That’s because at UCLA, you don’t get measured by 10-game win streaks or sitting atop the conference standings five games into the season. They hang only national championship banners in Pauley Pavilion -- those and retired player jerseys.
And even those are difficult to come by. Wilkes became only the eighth player to have his jersey retired by UCLA despite a long line of basketball royalty having played at Pauley Pavilion.
“It’s real tough to get your number retired,” said Wilkes, who was inducted into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame and had his jersey retired by the Los Angeles Lakers in December. “They have so many great players that have come through here that don’t have their numbers retired, and I was one of them for a long time. It’s just head and shoulders above most recognition.”
Those strict standards surround the program and raise expectations across the board. When the team showed up for practice a few weeks ago, the Bruins were greeted by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. On Thursday, it was Wilkes in the house, and a host of former players --including Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton -- were there to honor him. Those types of experiences humble the current players, who begin to realize why going 15-3 through 18 games won’t draw much other than a few atta-boys.
“It’s a great impression,” Kyle Anderson said. “To put these four letters across our chest -- UCLA -- is an honor. You have to play hard every minute out there because you are part of a tradition that has been so rich back in their time so it’s just an honor to play for UCLA.”
To make history for UCLA requires much more than a 10-game win streak. Ask Howland about it, and he will brush it aside even though this team began the season looking nothing like a squad that had a 10-game win streak in it.
Howland is reverent to the past and glowed in talking about Wilkes on Thursday, but his only focus right now is the present. He knows the next two games can make or break all the goodwill the current streak has built up and that if the next streak is a two-game losing streak, the questions about the direction of the program and his stewardship will arise once again.
“We’re just on to the next game,” Howland said. “We don’t even care about that streak; it’s just on to trying to win our next game that presents itself.”
Howland knows all too well how streaks can go sour. The last time one of his teams had a 10-game win streak, it went 5-6 over the next 11 games, finished second in the Pac-10 and bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.
And Howland’s last team to start conference play 5-0? That came during his first season, in 2003-04, and the Bruins proceeded to go 2-11 the rest of the way and finished the season 11-17.
“That was a miracle that we started 5-0 that year to be honest,” Howland said. “I’m not surprised with our team the way we started off here. But 10 years ago -- first of all, Shabazz and Kyle were 8 or 9 years old, I think. It’s not relative to them at all. It means zilch.”
And it will mean even less unless UCLA can keep it going over the next couple of weeks.
“All those teams coming up on our schedule are difficult,” Howland said. “And we’re a much better team than we were my first year. So hopefully we can ...”
Howland caught himself before he got to looking too far ahead.
“It’s just on to the next game,” he said. “One game at a time.”
History, after all, will judge the rest.