- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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So now we find out what this year's UCLA basketball team is really made of.
Defeating Brigham Young was a good win and taking Kansas to the final second created some good feelings, but when Washington visits Pauley Pavilion on Friday at 1 p.m. for a New Year's Eve showdown, it marks UCLA's most important game of the season.
The Huskies (8-3, 1-0) were a Sweet 16 team last season and are the preseason pick to win the conference title. Washington has won eight consecutive games against Pac-10 opponents and a school-record five consecutive conference road games.
That makes this a crucial test for a young UCLA squad that is on a six-game win streak but still needs to prove it has the goods to contend for the conference title.
"This is obviously a huge game because they are a very good team," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.
Washington reached as high as No. 11 in the nation earlier this season, but dropped out of the polls after losing close games to No. 12 Kentucky and No. 19 Michigan State in the Maui Invitational and then dropping a one-point game at No. 18 Texas A&M.
Howland said he still views the Huskies as a top-ranked team.
"I find it really surprising that they are not still nationally ranked," Howland said. "They are very good. They should be ranked. I don’t understand it."
The Huskies boast an offense that averages 89.1 points, most among Pac-10 teams. A bevy of quick, athletic players such as Isaiah Thomas, Justin Holiday and Matthew Bryan-Amaning and a bench that goes five players deep make Washington a matchup nightmare for most teams.
Washington has 10 players averaging five points or more and the Huskies have out rebounded their last three opponents by an average of 13.7 per game.
"They are a hard matchup," Howland said. "They have numbers of players. They can play big, which is how they start. Then they can go smaller. ... They have a lot of depth in the back court."
The key, Howland said is to stop the Huskies in transition. They like to run off of made shots, and are excellent at penetrating in the half court. On-ball defense hasn't exactly been a UCLA strength so far, so it will be crucial to focus in on that part of the game.
"We’ve got to do a good job trying to stop the ball early so we can get a chance to get everybody back," Howland said. "It may be that we have to only rebound two guys. We’ll start out trying to rebound [Tyler] Honeycutt, but there will be times where we may only rebound our four and our five."
It's still only December and the second conference game, so you can't call this a must-win game for UCLA. But there is no denying that matching up against the conference favorite is a pivotal, litmus-test game for the rebuilding Bruins, who are coming off an impressive victory over Washington State.
"This team is picked to win it, rightfully so," Howland said. "They just do a lot of good things. They are extremely well coached and they are very talented."
But, Howland said, he doesn't want his team thinking this is a season-defining game.
"Your next game is always the biggest game of the year," he said. "So that’s where we are right now."
2dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell