Have you ever looked forward to something so much that when it finally arrives you’re all the more disappointed? Case in point is tomorrow’s semi-finals of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Unfortunately, UCLA lost in the second round to Villanova by 20 points. (And it wasn’t nearly that close.) But, as my friend Mary, retired Santa Monica school teacher/sports maven, points out, we lost to them by three points less than Duke did. Whoopee.

After three straight UCLA Final Fours (2006-2008), and a record-tying 18 overall, for Bruin fans this year’s Big Dance was a Big Dud. The Final Four without UCLA is like the Fourth of July without Roman candles, Groundhog Day without the groundhog, or having a bozo two-term president ruin the country. (Obviously, it’s nothing like the latter but I couldn’t help myself.)

The NCAA tournament starts with 65 teams and ends this Monday night with one, undisputed champion. It’s also a TV ratings bonanza. CBS paid $6 billion for the TV rights for 11 years, raising the question, what does the NCAA do with all that money? Hopefully, very little goes to Dick Vitale.

The tournament is also a betting bonanza, greater even than the Super Bowl. Las Vegas reports that over $12 billion was wagered this year, while only $10 billion was for the Super Bowl. (Did I say “only?”) Add the untold billions in office pools across the country and you could almost bail out GM. OK, not quite.

Apparently, tournament betting is recession proof (it couldn’t be housing, instead). President Obama even filled out a bracket, picking North Carolina to win the championship (to which Rush Limbaugh reportedly said he hoped “North Carolina fails”). Obama also picked UCLA to lose in the first round, which, had I known in advance, I might have voted for McCain. OK, not quite.

There had been so much optimism at UCLA. The Bruins had talented players returning and among the best freshman recruiting classes in the country. So what happened? For starters, the horrendous home loss to ASU didn’t help. Up by 11 points with eight minutes to go, Coach Ben Howland, inexplicably, tried to run out the clock. This took the Bruins out of their shooting rhythm and gave the gasping Sun Devils time to rest. Other than that, it was a brilliant strategy.

Two losses in Arizona, plus to WSU (by one point) and to SC, prompted the NCAA Committee to give UCLA a bracket befitting a redheaded stepchild. (In this politically correct world, my apologies to all redheaded step children.) Admitting that I’ve been spoiled by UCLA’s sensational success over the years (check) and that I’m a rather poor loser (check) let the finger pointing begin.

Given how Howland has turned UCLA’s program around, I realize it’s blasphemy to criticize him. Apparently, I’m not letting that stop me.

In real estate it’s “location, location, location.” In Howland’s basketball it’s “defense, defense, defense.” Even his offense is defense (most points are scored off turnovers). After the Villanova loss, when tentatively questioned by reporters if he might ever employ a zone, Howland snapped, “No!” as though the zone was somehow unsportsman-like. He appeared defensive about being defensive.

Yes, defense wins games, but despite popular theory, it generally doesn’t win championships. Before the turn of the century, when L.A. had a professional football team known as the Rams, one of their more successful coaches was Chuck Knox’s whose nickname was “Ground Chuck.” This moniker stemmed from his style of grinding opponents into submission, while his offense was woefully unimaginative. The Rams won numerous division titles but in the playoffs, they always turned into hamburgers.

Whom I feel sorriest for about the Bruin season (other than Mary and me) are the players. Instead of turning pro, Darren Collison came back for his senior year; Alfred Aboya, who already graduated, also came back; and Josh Shipp, who endured two hip surgeries over the years, returned, hoping to go out in a blaze of glory. It wasn’t exactly a blaze. It was more like a heat lamp.

One habit of Howland’s that drives me insane is when UCLA has just gone on a demoralizing scoring spurt, suddenly he’ll call a momentum killing timeout! He says it’s to organize his defense, but it also gives the beleaguered opponent a desperately needed breather. Fortunately, if I throw anything at the TV I make sure it’s Styrofoam.

Of course in the big picture, my obsession with UCLA basketball is embarrassingly childish. We’ve got two wars, the worst economy since the Depression, our infrastructure is crumbling, the polar icecaps are melting, and international terrorism is actually on the rise. On the other hand, if Jrue Holiday comes back for one more year, and Howland gets a big, shot-blocking rebounder, who knows?

When he isn’t analyzing UCLA basketball’s next year’s recruiting class, Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.

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