- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- UCLA basketball players like to use the "us-against-the-world" mentality when they are on the road. Luckily for them, there is an "us" now.
Early this season, they weren't too sure. With a young lineup with three freshmen starters and a transfer point guard playing his first season at UCLA, the Bruins weren't had doubts. On-court chemistry issues arose and the Bruins struggled in losing three of their first five games after Shabazz Muhammad was cleared by the NCAA.
An eight-game win streak has followed and the Bruins (13-3, 3-0 Pac-12) say one of the biggest factors in the turnaround has simply been learning how to play with one another.
"Nobody knew how I played," Muhammad said. "We were just playing pickup. Now we can actually play and practice and guys are doing skill development and coach is always explaining what guys are good at and what guys aren't good at and I think it's really helping us."
The players have been close off the court, but on the court they still had some bonding to do. Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams all were stars on their high school teams. Larry Drew II was trying to establish himself as the offensive catalyst. Travis Wear was UCLA's leading returning scorer from last season.
They needed to figure out and establish their roles while melding their on-court personalities into one.
It took a while, but Anderson said they have reached that point.
"There's no hostility within teammates," Anderson said. "We're able to -- I wouldn't say argue or yell, but we're able to communicate more intensely and just drop it the next play. Nothing ever carries on to the next play. We're all for each other and we're all going to support each other 100 percent. I think the camaraderie has gotten a lot better and we're all coming together now."
UCLA's loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo served as the wake-up call, Wear said. After that game, the team realized that it wasn't playing as a unit, especially on the defensive end, and the loss was a revelation that talent, alone, wasn't going to get the team through the season.
"It definitely re-focused us," Wear said. "It made us realize that we could be beat on any night and that we have to bring it. Not only bring our individual best games, but we have to come in and play as a team every night. I think a couple of games early on we were beating teams just because we were better than them, but I think now we're really playing together."
Coach Ben Howland said that type of camaraderie comes in handy when playing on the road. UCLA is on its first true road swing of the season. The Bruins pulled out a tough, 57-53, victory at Utah on Thursday and will play at Colorado on Saturday.
"It helps everywhere," Howland said. "But when you're on the road and it's us against the world, I think it's especially keen. I think there is nothing more fun as a team than winning on the road, when you are in that kind of tough environment and come out with a win."
With the team chemistry and unity finally in shape and the Bruins playing a team-first, unselfish brand of basketball, there could be a lot more of those fun moments the rest of this season.
"We're going to beat better teams playing that way," Wear said. "If we play like this, we're going to be tough to beat, I feel."
16hKyle Bonagura and David Hale