Bruins surging, but are they for real?

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
8:56
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- The UCLA Bruins have a sparkling season record, a nine-game win streak, an undefeated record through the first two weeks of Pac-12 Conference play and a spot back in the national Top 25 rankings.

This probably wasn’t the scenario most Bruins fans saw coming back when they were stuffing themselves with Thanksgiving leftovers in late November.

The UCLA team that will take the court against Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion is vastly different from the one that lost three of five games and two players to transfers between Nov. 19 and Dec. 1.

This is much closer to the team most expected when coach Ben Howland hauled in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class and had the team ranked No. 13 in the preseason polls. That team was considered a sleeper Final Four contender and was supposed to resurrect a proud UCLA program that had muddled through four mediocre seasons.

Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker were supposed to save Howland from the hot seat, but the 10-year coach was well on his way out the door as UCLA struggled early on with a near-loss to UC Irvine, a loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and one-time starters Tyler Lamb and Joshua Smith abruptly leaving the team.

Oblivion would have to wait, however, as Howland and the Bruins pulled things together, and they haven’t lost since Dec. 1. Now, just past the midway point of the season, the Bruins are continuing to show signs of improvement, Howland’s hot seat has cooled significantly and the Bruins have once again offered hope of a memorable season.

Here are three reasons to believe it will happen and three reasons to remain skeptical:

Reasons to believe:

Defense

A lot of the talk about this season’s team centers around the offense; Howland is opening things up on that end of the floor and the Bruins are leading the Pac-12 in scoring and shooting percentage. There is no doubt that the offense triggered the current turnaround as UCLA averaged 93 points per game during a four-game stretch in late December. But a defense that was in shambles early on is starting to play well.

The Bruins were so bad defensively early on -- Georgetown shot 54.5 percent against them on Nov. 19 -- that Howland abandoned his principles for a stretch and actually used a zone defense. It worked for a while, but Howland is a stickler for man-to-man and he refuses to give up on it.

Gradually, the team has begun to figure it out. This is a team that doesn’t have the quickness and athleticism to play one-on-one man defense for an entire game, but Howland has drilled the tenets of team defense. The defensive rotations, switches and double teams are beginning to look natural instead of forced. Players seem to know where they are supposed to be most of the time and when they are supposed to help.

It has led to an increased energy and confidence on the defensive end, and UCLA’s first three conference opponents failed to crack 40 percent shooting. Colorado shot 43.8 percent on Saturday, but was at 38 percent until getting hot in the final four minutes against a weary UCLA team playing its second game in the mountains in three days.

UCLA is holding opponents to 39 percent shooting in conference games, good for fourth in the Pac-12. It’s still not quite championship caliber, but it’s continuing to get better.

Maturity

Early on this team had no idea what it was doing on the court, but it is quickly growing up and figuring it out.

Not only were four freshmen added to the mix, but so was point guard Larry Drew II, a senior transfer who sat out last season as a redshirt. The team had no chemistry to start off with, then was thrown for another loop when Muhammad returned after a three-game suspension.

Nobody had defined roles, everyone wanted to be the go-to scorer and nobody knew how to play defense. The freshmen, especially, were thrust into major minutes after spending most of their high school careers getting away with very limited defensive skills needed.

On Dec. 8 in Houston, facing a 59-51 deficit to Texas with 3:43 to play, the switch turned on. Drew figured out how to play with defensive intensity. The team began to play as a unit, looking for the open man on offense instead of always looking for the open shot. UCLA won, 65-63, and hasn’t lost since.

Ever since that game, the Bruins began sharing the ball better, with 18 or more assists in five consecutive games. Anderson, a point guard at heart but a power forward in body, began to accept his role as leading rebounder. Drew figured out that Muhammad is a tenacious scorer who will do anything to get the ball in the basket.

Adams found his niche as a scorer and figured out his defensive strengths, and Travis Wear finally settled in to his role as big man who can stretch the opposing defense. The selfishness that hindered the team early on is no longer evident and instead has been replaced by a palpable chemistry. That bodes well for continued success.

Momentum

A nine-game win streak is no small feat -- entering Wednesday, only seven teams in the nation had longer active win streaks -- and can go a long way toward building confidence in a young team. As Howland likes to say, success breeds success, so each victory reinforces the notion that what the players are doing is correct.

It’s showing in the effort of individual players. Muhammad, for instance, was rusty and out of shape when he returned from his three-game suspension to start the season, but worked hard to get back in shape and has seen it pay off as he’s currently leading the Bruins in scoring. Now he’s working on other areas of his game, such as defense and rebounding, and he’s getting better in those areas as well.

Going on the road and sweeping Utah and Colorado last week to keep the streak alive can only build on the foundation of confidence the Bruins are building. Those are difficult places to play as a visiting team, especially considering they were UCLA’s first true road games of the season. Winning them is a clear sign that the team is getting better.

There is no doubt that UCLA is still not playing at a championship-caliber level, but each week you can see improvement. They are climbing the rankings and the all-important RPI and if that continues, the Bruins will be a factor in March.

Reasons to doubt:

Schedule

Aside from Missouri, the Bruins don’t have a victory they can hang their hat on. Sure, the Colorado win was nice and got the Bruins back in the Top 25, but it’s not going to make anyone stand up and say "Wow, the Bruins are for real."

That "wow" factor can come over the next two weeks when UCLA plays No. 21 Oregon (14-2), at No. 7 Arizona (15-1) and at Arizona State (14-3). Add in a game against Oregon State (10-6), and if the Bruins get through those four games with three or four wins, then nobody can discount their legitimacy.

Two weeks later, the Bruins play Washington. If UCLA is still in first place in the Pac-12 after that, then they are playing the rest of the season for seeding in the NCAA tournament. That’s a big "if," however.

The Bruins could easily go 1-3 over the next two weeks. Even 2-2, while probably realistic, would raise questions about how far the Bruins can go. Oregon and Arizona have proven themselves to be legitimate conference title contenders. Arizona State is similar to UCLA in that it has a good record with not many quality wins. And don’t count out Oregon State, which beat UCLA last season and is the type of pressuring, athletic team that gives UCLA trouble.

UCLA’s toughest tests are still ahead. The doubters still have reason to hold on to that doubt. But if the Bruins get through the next couple of weeks relatively unscathed then nobody can deny that the Bruins are for real.

Inexperience

Other than Drew, who played limited minutes as a freshman during North Carolina’s 2008-09 ACC title run, nobody on the UCLA roster has been through the grind of a conference title race.

The pressure will continue to rise as the games increase in significance. And while most of UCLA’s players have played in big games at the high school and AAU level, it’s going to be all new to them if the Bruins get in the mix down the stretch.

It’s not going to be easy out there, either. While they have passed their first road test of the season, they still have a trip to Arizona and Washington -- two of the most difficult places to play anywhere -- plus a trip to play Cal, which is notoriously anti-UCLA.

The Bruins have shown they can handle close games so far, but they’ve also let some big leads dwindle down the stretch in recent weeks. As the intensity grows, the Bruins must grow along with it or some of those dwindled leads will turn into lost games.

Depth

The Bruins have managed to avoid serious injuries so far, but should that luck run out, it could mean a whole lot of trouble for UCLA.

There are only eight players in the regular rotation right now and Parker is averaging only seven minutes. That means the rotation would be down to six plus Parker if one player misses time.

An injury to any one of the currently healthy players would have a domino effect on how Howland would have to manage the roster. For instance, if Drew were unable to play, the point guard duties would go to Anderson, but then the team’s leading rebounder would be stuck out on the perimeter.

If Muhammad were to miss time, someone would have to pick up the scoring slack. If Adams is injured, the Bruins lose their outside shooting threat. Travis Wear has been indispensable in recent games, but twin brother David could contribute equally if forced into that role.

And that doesn’t even account for foul trouble. The Bruins have managed to avoid that for the most part this season, but what if Anderson picks up two quick ones on the road at Arizona and gets a third late in the first half? Having anybody on the bench with foul trouble for significant minutes would spell trouble for UCLA in any game.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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