A year ago it could be sensed, the development feeling almost tangible. UCLA had a razor-sharp focus and honed itself into a team capable of making a remarkable run to the national championship game. The Bruins won seven consecutive games entering the NCAA Tournament. They won the Pacific-10 Tournament with ease. Not after the Bruins put together their worst half of basketball all season in a stunning 76-69 overtime loss to the mediocre Cal Bears Thursday in their opener of the Pac-10 Tournament. Not after the Bruins lost their second consecutive game for the first time all season. Not after the Bruins put their No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in jeopardy. “I don’t even care,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “It doesn’t matter who we play. If we don’t play any better than we are right now, any in the field of 65 can beat us. “The next game we play, we’d better play like it’s our last game. We’d better get back to that attitude and that toughness.” They were growing at exactly the right moment. Getting big plays from a variety of players. Stepping up its defensive intensity. Playing with confidence and purpose. Not a whole lot like this year’s edition. Despite being 26-5 and ranked No. 4 in the country, the Bruins’ past two games have underlined concerns: An almost mysterious collapse at the line (they hit 15 of 29 free throws against Cal); trouble boxing out (they were outrebounded for the second consecutive game); a reliance on 3-point shooting (25 of 55 shot attempts were 3-pointers); occasional lapses with ball control (11 turnovers in the first half); and too-frequent slow starts. It was their inexplicable start against the Bears that really did them in Thursday. Turnovers, poor shooting and getting pounded on the boards (15-9) in the first half had the Bruins behind by as many as 16 points. UCLA looked disinterested. They played without fire, without energy, without an edge. The 16-16 Bears were more than happy to take advantage. “I thought our team got off to a good start,” said Cal coach Ben Braun. Arron Afflalo got off to a bad start, and it picked up speed. The Pac-10 Player of the Year suffered through the worst game of his career. Afflalo did not make a single field goal in regulation. He finished 1 for 7, had no rebounds, one assist, fouled out in overtime and saw Cal’s Ayinde Ubaka lead the Bears with 29 points, including several clutch shots, including two buzzer-beaters. “He had a bad game, probably his worst performance,” Howland said of Afflalo. “It was both ends. He knows it.” Cal took a 37-25 lead at halftime, came back out and awaited the inevitable UCLA charge. Something about trailing by 12 at the half seemed to get the Bruins’ attention. They started the second half by suddenly attacking the basket. Guard Darren Collison, 0 for 2 at the half with five turnovers, found his motor and the Bruins were rolling. They started the second half with a 20-4 run, caught and the passed Cal, leading by four with 6:57 to play. Maybe UCLA thought the Bears would roll over, feel like they’d given it their best shot, overachieved long enough. But the Bears came back, kept battling. Even after Collison scored on a drive to give the Bruins a 61-59 lead with 39seconds left in regulation, Ubaka answered with a drive of his own to send the game into overtime. The mighty Bruins were knocked off by a .500 Cal team. This wasn’t like losing at Washington on Saturday after clinching the conference title on Thursday at Washington State. This loss was more telling, of more concern. The Bruins probably needed at least one victory here to lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney. Now they’re at risk, although with a No. 1 RPI and 9-1 record against ranked teams, they still seem likely to get the top spot in the West. Even if they fall to a second seed, they would probably be the highest-ranked team in the West and still get placed in the West region. But they will not arrive with great momentum, will not arrive putting fear into the hearts of opponents, as they likely would have had they won the Pac-10 Tournament. “When we get back and look at this game film, I’m sure we won’t see any silver linings,” Howland said. “That’s how we’re playing right now. It’s March 8, and that’s how we’re playing.” At this moment, the Bruins playing little like the team UCLA team that entered last year’s tournament. This team is where? “I don’t know,” Afflalo said. “We still have 26 wins. We’re still a great team. We’ll see who has strong character to be able to bounce back from this.” But this postseason appears to be nothing like last year’s. Steve Dilbeck’s column appears in the Daily News four times a week. [email protected] (818) 713-3607 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!