A season to forget

It's been one of those seasns. Ben Howland and his Bruins have been looking for answers. Kirby Lee/US Presswire

Michael Roll isn't the sentimental type. He isn't one to tear up thinking back on the past or get a lump in his throat talking about the end of this chapter of his basketball career.

But his voice changes a bit when he's asked about the beginning of his time at UCLA. Though he's a senior now, staring at what could be the final game of his collegiate career when the Bruins play Arizona in the first round of the Pacific 10 Tournament on Thursday, he can still remember every detail from his freshman and sophomore seasons.

"I still remember everything we did in the Final Four and during the NCAA tournament like it was yesterday," said Roll, UCLA's leading scorer (13.5 ppg) and unassuming leader this season.

"I remember everything, the bus rides to the games, hanging out with the guys, the games against Florida and Memphis, even though we didn't win, I remember it like it was yesterday."

If only it was.

UCLA managed to salvage its season from abject disaster with a mild, midseason return to respectability after a horrid start.

Then it whimpered to the finish, losing four of its last five regular-season games to finish with a 13-17 record. The only way the Bruins can avoid thir third losing season since 1947-48 would be to win the Pac-10 tournament, then advance to at least the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

This time of year it's best not to get into the prediction business, but with no proven stars, an injury-plagued bench and an anemic offense, the Bruins and their staff should feel pretty comfortable booking trips for spring break next week.

Roll wasn't ready to write anything off just yet, but he clearly understood the reality of the situation.

"I definitely want to make the NCAA tournament, it would be a bummer to go out [without doing it as a senior], but I see the big picture," he said. "I think this season kind of shows how lucky I was to be a part of what we did.

"I was kind of spoiled. I came here and right away, my freshman year, we clicked at the right time and made a deep tournament run. These last two years obviously have been a little bit harder. But it just makes me realize that what we did then was special."

UCLA's demise this season was somewhat predictable. There are only so many first-round draft picks a school can lose to the NBA in successive years before it experiences a decline.

Unfortunately, because of its provenance and championship pedigree, any season that UCLA is down takes a deep toll on the reputation of the Pacific 10 Conference.

"We have talked about this over the years," California coach Mike Montgomery said. "I don't think it affects the conference on the West Coast; I think a national perspective it does.

"With UCLA not being as good as they have been, it affects them because they naturally assume the league is not very good. Then if you lose to them and UCLA is not very good then that just makes it worse."

Unfortunately that's also not the only thing that's true. It doesn't exactly help a reputation nationally to finish 2-13 against teams in the latest Top 25 rankings.

Or, when it takes a casual college basketball fan more than 30 seconds to name more than two candidates for the conference player of the year award. (In case you missed it, that honor went to California's Jerome Randle, who led the Golden Bears to their first conference title in 50 years).

"I think that it's very documented that when you have a conference as good as the Pac-10 and you lose the talented players who are lottery picks in the NBA, the next year you aren't suddenly the same," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

"I think we are going through a transition stage. A year from now or two years from now when some players who have the unique experience of playing now become veterans [things will be different]."

The most glaring evidence of the Pac-10's decline this season?

Montgomery had to take this advertisement out in the school newspaper the week before what ended up being a title-clinching win over Arizona State:

"We need every seat in Haas Pavilion to be full for these two games. If you have tickets for the game, we need you to use them. If you don't have tickets for the game, I encourage you to purchase yours today at CalBears.com. If you have tickets, but are unable to use them, I ask that you pass them off to someone who can be there."

The game ended up selling out, Cal won, and the students rushed the court.

It's a good thing they did.

Though most national pundits anticipate that Cal will reach the NCAA tournament even if it doesn't win the conference tournament, there are no guarantees.

"Performance is the best indicator for getting into the tournament," Arizona's Miller said. "You can't buy your way into the tournament. You can't politic your way into the tournament. You have to perform."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com