"That was a game that makes you proud to follow the team," another UCLA fan said.
A third fan, of course, had to express the natural regret: "What if they had played like that all season?"
Spending the weekend at the MGM Grand for the Pac-12 Tournament, and speaking with many UCLA fans in and out of bars, and in and out of various stages of inebriation (theirs and mine), one theme became fairly clear: UCLA fans are very willing to jump on board Steve Alford's program, they just needed something to inspire them.
When the Bruins beat Arizona Saturday, in what was one of the best college basketball games of the season (and perhaps the first half being the best half of college basketball I've personally seen this season), I could safely say that I came away from my informal research with the feeling that it wasn't just about winning for UCLA fans. It was about the fans wanting to see the team play with a consistency of effort. The comment I heard most often was along the lines of: "I just wanted to see the team play hard so I could like them."
It's amazing, too, how UCLA fans can be so easy to fall back in love with their team. Just string together a few games that display effort and intensity and the typical Bruin fan is on board -- to his immense credit.
Most didn't even put an expectation on how far UCLA needed to go in the NCAA Tournament to live up to expectation, but just that they play with intensity.
Now, what fans of other traditionally elite national programs would have such lowered expectations like that?
Obviously doing a pub crawl through the MGM Grand does not make for a formal poll, but it was striking how many fans wearing blue and gold gear reiterated much of the same sentiment throughout the weekend. When it comes to Steve Alford, every one I spoke with had some degree of skepticism of the coach initially and throughout the season. The feeling was that the hiring of Steve Alford left them a bit uninspired but that they were willing to buy in -- if there was something to buy in for. In other words, UCLA fans generally aren't blind followers but need something substantive to believe in. Most fans said that Alford had begun to gain some credibility with them -- until the debacle of a loss at Washington State. But now, the UCLA fan psyche has completely bounced back, to the point that the conventional sentiment is if this year's Bruins play in the NCAA Tournament the way they played in the Pac-12 Tournament that's enough for them to really support Alford.
Of course, there were a few outliers. Their expectations were Elite 8 or better or it wasn't a good year. One guy said he'd only consider it a successful season if they went beyond his expectation and made the Elite Eight. I pointed out to him, then, that his expectation was the Sweet 16, which wasn't that lofty to begin with, and he admitted it.
Again, even for the outlier, expectations were reasonable. There wasn't one who said, "NCAA Championship or Bust."
My biggest takeaway was, first, how striking it is that UCLA fans' expectations are what they are. And that if a national journalist ever want to do an accurate story on UCLA fans' expectations all they'd have to do is a bit of research in a few bars in the MGM Grand during the Pac-12 Tournament rather than doing no research and just repeating the same, old tired rhetoric.
Another takeaway, and obviously related, is how UCLA fans want to jump on board Alford's program. The feeling I got was that most UCLA fans have yet to fully invest in the program and Steve Alford -- that, for whatever reason, his resume and reputation wasn't enough when he was hired. They needed something to inspire them to get on board. Obviously the run in the Pac-12 Tournament is a big step. Travis Wear's laid-out, Superman-type dive to get that loose ball with 2:30 left and the game tied at 68 was cited over and over, and seems to be the lightning rod, that moment that really generated inspiration. One female UCLA fan said: "It gave me chills." Another said, "That won me over right there."
How UCLA played in the Pac-12 Tournament really has set the tone and atmosphere -- and expectation -- for Steve Alford's program. Fans were almost unanimous in expressing that: If this year's UCLA team just finished off the NCAA Tournament with a similar intensity level, regardless of whether they win or lose, the team and Steve Alford will have won them over. They've been sitting on the sideline emotionally for most of the season but are ready to get in the game.
One fan might have put it best: "I just wanted to see that this team was into my UCLA program as much as I could be."