Thursday, December 29, 2011

UCLA BASKETBALL: Even at 7-5, Bruins might be class of league

UCLA BASKETBALL: Even at 7-5, Bruins might be class of league

By Jon Gold Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Daily News
Posted: 12/27/2011 10:39:39 PM PST
Updated: 12/28/2011 12:51:31 AM PST

A college basketball team does not exist within a vacuum, or else UCLA's 7-5 start would look a whole lot worse.

Embarrassing losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State, followed by more forgivable defeats to No. 14 Kansas, No. 15 Michigan and Texas, were thought to have relegated the Bruins to also-ran status and turned the shiny expectations of a preseason Top 25 ranking into lumps of coal.

But then the rest of the Pacific-12 Conference started losing ... and losing ... and losing, and now that once-insurmountable ditch UCLA once found itself in appears to be a blip.

The Bruins have won five consecutive games heading into Thursday's Pac-12 opener against Stanford, which is tied for the conference's best record at 10-2 albeit against a weak nonconference schedule. The Bruins look at the conference as ripe for the picking.

"We can definitely make a push," said junior point guard Lazeric Jones, who leads the team in scoring at 13.2 points per game. "We have to stick to our principles. I preach that a lot.

"Listening to coach - he knows exactly what he's talking about - going out there defensively and doing what we have to do. We have a lot of offensive firepower, so it's about going out there and focusing defensively."

With more moving parts than a Rolex, that has been easier said than done for UCLA.

The Bruins rank 10th in the conference in field-goal defense (42 percent) and 11th against the 3-pointer (39 percent), although the team tries to make up for it with a league-leading 5.42 blocks per game and a third-best 7.50 steals per game.

The Bruins said they are just now starting to get a feel for each other on the court, and it has shown in recent weeks. Although the competition has been as stiff as Jello, UCLA has won its past four games by a margin of 302-209, and the defense appears to be coming together, particularly when coach Ben Howland allows the Bruins to play zone.

It's also been in the little things, like the extra-help defense caused by better court awareness, the unselfishness brought about by a winning streak and the unspoken communication that's beginning to form.

"We have a lot of new pieces, so it was definitely a comfort factor trying to get worked out," sophomore forward David Wear said. "We had some defensive breakdowns - we really weren't used to playing with each other at that level - but as the season has gone forward we're realizing where we fit in, what we have to do defensively."

The improved defense has helped make up for an offense that is playing without its returning leading scorer in the recently dismissed Reeves Nelson and without the expected progression of sophomore Joshua Smith, who is averaging just 17.8 minutes and 9.6 points while battling weight issues.

With a lack of star power in the conference - the Pac-12 has only three players averaging more than 16 points per game and none above 17 - the Bruins are hoping their offensive balance can help them continue their recent run.

UCLA has six players on the cusp of double figures, thanks to big wins in recent weeks.

"I liked how we were playing going into this weekend over the last couple weeks," Howland said. "Since we got out of finals, I think we made some really big progress as a team."

That just happened to coincide with Nelson's departure, and aside from the awkward questions that still persist the team appears to have moved on quite well.

And with the Pac-12 abundantly winnable, Howland hopes the early bumps and bruises the team suffered to their bodies and chemistry will have paid off.

"Adversity always makes you better, when you handle it the right way," Howland said. "This team has had its fair share of adversity this year, and I think that's one of the things that's most pleasing is how we've improved."

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