It was exhilarating to watch UCLA's electric style of basketball in the championship game of the Wooden Legacy on Sunday. Led by sensational freshman Lonzo Ball, the Bruins put on a show as they defeated Texas A&M 74-67 to improve to 7-0 this season.
As exciting as UCLA's play was on the court, it was just as depressing there was no one there to see it. The championship game of the Wooden Legacy, named after the Bruins' iconic coach, was played at Anaheim's Honda Center, less than 50 miles from UCLA's Westwood campus, but there appeared to be fewer than 4,000 in attendance at the 18,000-seat arena.
In that setting, I had to wonder why UCLA should still be considered college basketball royalty.
Among the high major programs in college basketball, there is a special, even-more select group. I call it the Uber Elite. Some refer to it as the Super-High Major.
Whatever you call it, it is the top of the food chain in a sport that has traditionally put five schools above all others. That group is, in no particular order, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA -- the latter of which has 11 NCAA Tournament championships, more than any other school.
Those storied programs are considered college basketball's royalty and command respect. They all can recruit nationally, should dominate locally and coaches consider them to be destination jobs.
But as Kentucky sets to host UCLA on Saturday, we have to wonder if we can still realistically talk about these two programs in the same breath.
Remember, the Cats have been to four Final Fours in the past six years, won a national title in 2012, and Big Blue Madness always sells out. Duke has been to 13 Sweet 16s in 16 years, won two national titles in the past six years, rarely is there an empty seat at Cameron Indoor and they sell out MSG every year. Kansas has won 12 straight Big 12 titles and a national championship in 2009. North Carolina? Seven Elite 8s in the last 11 years, one shot away from Roy Williams' third national title a year ago, and though the crowd can be wine and cheese, there is still a full house most every night in Chapel Hill.
Meanwhile, since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1983, UCLA has won just one NCAA title while advancing to four Final Fours. That's one national semifinal every eight years, on average, and even that's deceiving because three of them came in consecutive years from 2006-08 -- the only real stretch of elite play in the last three-plus decades. Yet alums and fans alike carry an air of arrogance that would suggest they're in the national title conversation year in and year out.
I grew up a UCLA basketball fan. My dad had season tickets for over 20 years, my sister was a Bruins cheerleader and my brother is also an alum. I know the "Eight Clap" and can hum the UCLA fight song "Sons of Westwood" and was at the basketball debut of "The Mighty Bruins."
John and Nell Wooden court is perfect in it's simplicity and there is nothing as elegant as their white uniforms with script UCLA across the front.
Current UCLA coach Steve Alford is a perfect fit for the Bruins.
Alford is ultra-confident, which some take as arrogant, but why shouldn't he be? He won a national title as a player at Indiana in 1987, a gold medal for Team USA in the 1984 Olympics and as a coach has been successful at Southwest Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico before taking over at UCLA in 2013.
Bruin fans who cling to the past have disdain for Alford's reminders of his own past success. But how can they ignore that Alford gave back a year of a contract extension this offseason to keep the wolves at bay, has put together a team that is exciting and winning, and will sign a recruiting class next year that will be among the nation's elite.
But still, no one in LA seems to care.
Los Angelenos love sports, just not UCLA basketball. The Dodgers led Major League Baseball by drawing 3.7 million fans and even the Angels, one of the worst teams in the American League, were seventh in attendance, drawing slightly more than 3 million fans.
Attendance is an issue for many programs. Schools have built oversized arenas, put every game on television, jacked up many of the donations required to buy season tickets and then wondered why Missouri, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Stanford and so many other formerly incredible environments are half-empty shells of their former self. The difference here, though, is that for the most part, UCLA has actually been quite good, has had NBA Draft-caliber talent and it is supposed to be different because it is, well, UCLA.
But UCLA struggles to draw fans, students and otherwise to a nicely redone Pauley Pavilion. Blame it on 6 p.m. starts due to new TV deals or that there is "too much to do" in L.A., but UCLA games are not "a happening" and it is embarrassing.
The support, or lack thereof, for the team is frankly kind of baffling. The fans never seem to be happy with the current coach in that way that the impossible-to-please father never approves of his daughter's boyfriend. Alford plays too fast, the defense isn't tough, but when UCLA was coached by Ben Howland out from 2003-13 and the defense was, for the most part, lights out, Bruins fans complained that the team "played too slow."
Meanwhile, Howland's final team lead the Pac-12 in scoring.
And on and on it goes. They hated how nice Larry farmer was, how Walt Hazzard's teams didn't play up to their talent. They hated Jim Harrick's early NCAA losses, despite his national championship, and Steve Lavin's teams' occasional no-shows early in the season against a local low-major.
Even Bill Walton loves to openly crush whoever the Bruins' coach is. We get it Bill, Wooden was the best, but when you are the preeminent voice representing the glory days of the school, a little support of the alma mater wouldn't kill you.
By the way, the entitled UCLA fan is only matched by the entitled views of the athletic department for 30 years. Only now, 10 years after every major program has a basketball facility, has UCLA moved dirt to have a facility that basketball players don't have to share with the rest of the student body, and that's only happening because Former UCLA players Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love have stepped up and donated to give the basketball program a first-class home.
Kentucky has had a players' dorm for years, as has Louisville, and this year Kansas opened one which has a court in it to go with all the other goodies. My guess is in 20 years UCLA might raise the money for something similar.
And consider that UCLA just started chartering flights for its team. While you can seemingly fly anywhere from LAX, flying back to the west coast and into a commercial airport is cumbersome which is why most major programs charter frequently. Some fly charter exclusively. But not UCLA.
The mystique of UCLA was created during a time in which the Bruins were committed to basketball and most programs were not. In the 1960s and early 1970s, UCLA dominated the western states and seldom competed nationally by only playing a game here or there against a team not from form the West and in the NCAA Final Four.
Meanwhile, others caught up and have passed the Bruins, and UCLA fans who do not truly support their program in any way other than clinging to some past glory they never personally experienced wonder why.
Is UCLA something special? Sure. But considering them amongst the Uber Elite of Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina seems like a stretch.