LOS ANGELES -- The loss will set the UCLA Bruins back only one game in the Pac-12 standings, but it did quite a bit more damage in the court of public opinion.
Only minutes after the 10-game win streak ended it became clear that the run had been mostly a mirage padded with victories over teams that would need a boost to enter the world of mediocrity. Even UCLA victim Missouri, an 83-52 loser to Florida on Saturday, seems like a marginal team after losing two of its past three.
The convincing victory by Oregon (16-2, 5-0 Pac-12), a team that has established itself as a legitimate top-25 team with victories over the Arizona Wildcats and UNLV Rebels, shows that the Bruins (15-4, 5-1) still have room to grow if they are to re-join the national elite as they so desperately desire.
“After a loss like this it really takes us back to the drawing board,” said guard Norman Powell. “Come back to practice and work on the things that we need to work on.”
Losing to Oregon in itself isn’t the end of the world. But when you remember that this is the same UCLA team that was capable of losing to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo back in November -- and factor in this was a statement game on its home court -- it becomes clear why this loss is so damaging.
There seems to have been a wait-and-see approach with the Bruins since that Cal Poly loss. And even after defeating Missouri and winning back-to-back games to open conference play to extend their win streak to seven, the Bruins couldn’t crack the national rankings.
Only after sweeping a road trip at Utah and Colorado last week did the Bruins re-enter the national polls. They needed to validate their ranking with a win over Oregon. The failure to do so means voters were right to be skeptical.
“It really hurts,” center Travis Wear said. “This one, after having that win streak going and playing so well, to come out and lose a tough conference game to a ranked team we really wanted this one.”
If the Bruins are going to stay in the Pac-12 title race and get back on the road to national elite status, they will have to figure out a way to overcome their rebounding deficiencies. Oregon outrebounded UCLA 40-31, marking the sixth time in the past seven games UCLA has been outdone on the boards. The Ducks had 13 offensive rebounds -- 10 in the first half -- and scored 12 second-chance points.
“You talk about what our Achilles’ heel has been for us and what concerns me most: No. 1 is rebounding,” coach Ben Howland said. “Today we got outboarded by nine. They’re physical, they’re strong. It’s my fault. We obviously haven’t done a good enough job of teaching block outs.”
UCLA’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t have a true center. Kyle Anderson, a 6-foot-9 swingman who considers himself a point guard, is far and away the team's leading rebounder at 9.1 per game. Travis Wear, who starts at center, is generously listed at 6-foot-10, but is more of a finesse jump shooter than a physical center who can mix it up in the paint. He’s second on the team with 5.9 rebounds per game.
“I think that we have to box out and seek the ball rather than just boxing out and hope someone else is going to get it,” Wear said. “Actively seek the ball off the rim. Go get it; don’t let it come to you. We’ll work on it this week in practice. Rebounding is just an effort thing.”
It’s not going to get any easier. UCLA’s next game is at No. 7 Arizona, which leads the conference in rebounding margin. Not only that, it marks gut-check time for the Bruins.
A bounce back win in a difficult environment will show that the Bruins still have the chops to make some noise in the conference and perhaps in the NCAA tournament come March. A loss, and the Bruins will be dismissed as also-rans in a conference that isn’t all that great to begin with.
“It’s how you bounce back,” Howland said. “We’re going into what is arguably the toughest road trip of the league based on the records of our next two opponents. This will be a real good test for us, and we’re going to work real hard to prepare.”
Powell hinted that this next trip would be a crossroads trip for the Bruins. He said the Bruins may have become a little too enamored of their 10-game win streak and forgotten how difficult a test Oregon would be.
“We all knew it was going to be a big game,” he said. “It’s just about coming in with that mentality. We can’t get too big-headed about our win streak and come in there and just think this team was going to lay over and give us the win.”
The key to re-establishing themselves among the conference elite, Powell said, would be to go in to Arizona and show that losing to Oregon was the exception, not the norm.
“We have to just play as a team, play as one since we’re on the road and do everything we need to do to win,” he said. “It takes true character of the team to come back on this road trip and get these two wins that we need.”