Bruins face stiff tests to open Pac-10 play

UCLA begins it quest for a Pac-10 title Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion and it won't take long for the Bruins to figure out where they stand.

The Bruins (8-4) have been a tough nut to crack this season, with impressive performances intertwined with head scratchers. But in opening against Washington State (10-2) Wednesday and Washington (8-3) Friday, the Bruins will face two of the conference's top teams right off the bat and, in turn, learn a little about where they stand in the wide-open conference race.

"It's real important that we get off to a good start," UCLA junior guard Malcolm Lee said. "This first week of conference can set the tone for the rest of the season. If we get on a roll, that's something that can get us in the running to with the conference title."

The question is, which Bruins team will show up? will it be the one that took Kansas to the final second and defeated BYU, or the one that lost to Montana and scraped by against UC Irvine?

If the Bruins are indeed a team that plays to the level of their competition, then figure on the good UCLA showing up to open Pac-10 play.

Washington State is one of the most underrated teams in the conference. The Cougars have some quality performances on their resume so far this season, including an 81-59 victory over Gonzaga and a 77-71 victory over then-No. 15 Baylor.

Their two losses have come against No. 17 Kansas State and to Butler, last year's national runner up.

Washington is the preseason-favorite to win the conference title.

"I actually prefer it to be this way," forward Tyler Honeycutt said of the stiff competition to start Pac-10 play. "If we have the lower record teams, we might tend to slack off."

The Bruins learned last season that they can not slack off at any time. UCLA started 6-4 in conference play last season then lost six of its last eight.

But despite the inconsistent performances this season, the Bruins appear to be in a much better place than when they entered conference play at 5-7 a year ago. They are on a five-game win streak and young players such as freshmen Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb have gotten plenty of playing time and are showing signs of maturation.

If the team continues to progress, there is no reason to think it won't be in the mix for the conference title come late February.

"Everything that's happened up to now is stuff to help you get better," Coach Ben Howland said. "Compared to a year ago at this time I think we’re a much better team than we were a year ago."

And while an 8-4 record won't necessarily get Howland smiling about his team's performance so far, he has hopes that a difficult preseason schedule that included games against No. 8 Villanova, No. 4 Kansas and No. 16 BYU has toughened up his team as conference play opens up.

"I’d rather be 10-2 or 11-1," Howland said. "But if you look at our schedule, we've played some pretty good teams. I think that will spell out even ,more as the season progresses."