- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- At long last, the UCLA Bruins showed some signs of improvement.
The season so far has been tainted by lackluster play on the defensive end and a top-rated freshman class that seemed to be underachieving.
None of it appeared to be getting any better from game to game, either, with a string of mostly uninspiring and unimpressive games over the past few weeks. But they took a step in the right direction Saturday night as they dominated Prairie View A&M, 95-53, in a nonconference game at Pauley Pavilion.
The cynics will say that it was only a win against a mediocre team which UCLA should dominate, so it wasn't that big of a deal. But UC Irvine, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Georgia and Texas also fit into that category, and UCLA (7-3) struggled against all of those teams.
Against the Panthers (5-6), UCLA looked fluid and played with an energy level that has been missing for much of the season. The defensive intensity, especially, made significant progress, and if the Bruins can somehow figure out how to string together some games with a similar energy, they may very well ramp up into the more important months of the season that are to come.
"This was hopefully something we can build on here," coach Ben Howland said.
Indeed, it was. UCLA's man-to-man defense looked like an entirely different unit than it had in recent games. The Bruins crouched low in their stance, stayed in front of the ball and seemed committed to getting defensive stops.
They rotated effectively to help one another and generally played together as a team.
"I never thought we would give up on being a (good) defensive team," guard Kyle Anderson said. "We're a bunch of mentally tough kids. I just thought collectively we had to work on it and that's what we did. It all came along after working on it and practicing it and it all came together tonight."
The Bruins had played only one real game in the last two weeks before Saturday, so they had ample time to work out the kinks in their much-scrutinized man defense. During that time, it has become en vogue to bash Howland for stubbornly sticking with his man defense even though the team seemed better suited for a zone.
But Howland rolled up his sleeves and got to work with his team, figuring a good man defense is the best path to success. He refused to take the easy way out and play a zone, choosing instead to believe that his young team, with three freshmen starters, simply needed time to soak in the principles of his defense.
Saturday it seemed to pay off. Despite going against the type of quicker, more athletic team that had shredded the Bruins earlier this season, UCLA held the Panthers to 34.4 percent shooting, including 29.4 percent in the first half. They also had nine blocked shots -- a staple of Howland defenses of the past and an indication that players are rotating to the weak side to cut off opponents driving to the basket.
"Coming in as a freshman and playing defense like coach Howland wants you to play is really hard," sophomore guard Norman Powell said. "I struggled with it last year. All the work that we've been putting in and everything that is being said in practice about defense is working on the court. We're just executing what Coach Howland wants us to do."
Because of a lull in the schedule, the Bruins have been hard at work in the practice gym, and it has been mostly a clinic in man-to-man defense. It also has helped everyone get into better condition, especially Shabazz Muhammad, who acknowledged this week that he was about 15 pounds overweight when he began playing a few weeks ago.
He's back down close to where he wants to be and he had a career-high 25 points Saturday on 8-of-14 shooting. His condition has helped him on defense, and he said the team, in general, is simply getting better as it gains experience.
"We're just starting to get it more and get in the flow of this college basketball game," Muhammad said. "In high school it's a whole different area. We're just doing a good job of buckling down and getting into the system."
They certainly passed the eye test Saturday, offering a glimmer of hope in a season that was on the verge of spiraling down the drain only a week ago. If UCLA had lost to Texas, the Bruins may not have ever recovered.
But erasing an eight-point lead in the final four minutes put the spring back in UCLA's step. The Bruins have a tough game against Long Beach State next week and a stern test Dec. 28 against No. 12 Missouri before conference play starts on Jan. 3.
The Bruins can only hope to continue to build off of their performance Saturday and offer some hope so soon after all hope seemed to be lost.
"I think our young players are growing and learning and it's just all the little things," Howland said. "It's attention to detail. It's hard to play good defense."
Especially, he said, for the young players going through this for the first time.
"They're improving," he said. "They're getting better. It's what you expect. I don't know how many teams in the country are starting three freshmen, but it takes time and they're getting better. My staff and I are really trying to help them improve."
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