BERKELEY, Calif. -- UCLA meets California tonight in a rare Sunday night game and the Bruins have plenty of causes for concern.
First off, California guard Allen Crabbe, averaging 15.4 points in Pac-10 play, is expected to return to the lineup after missing two games because of a concussion. Crabbe scored 13 of his 17 points in the final 3:30 against UCLA on Jan. 20.
Second, California (13-13, 6-8) is on a four-game losing streak and will be desperate for a win when the teams tip off at 7 p.m.
The Golden Bears are better than their record might indicate, having lost six games by four points or fewer -- including a 107-105 triple overtime loss to conference leader Arizona two weeks ago--and have lost three times on the final play of the game.
One of those losses came at UCLA on Jan. 20, when Cal erased a 14-point lead in the final four minutes before Reeves Nelson made a game-winning tip in with two seconds to play an 86-84 UCLA victory.
Add in UCLA's 0-2 record on Sunday this season -- the Bruins lost to Montana on Dec. 11 and at USC on Jan. 9 -- and you can see why Bruins coach Ben Howland is concerned despite UCLA's season-long tying six-game win streak.
"It’s going to be hard," Howland said. "They are coming off four tough losses in a row. Mike Montgomery is a Hall of Fame coach. He should be in the Naismith Hall of Fame and I’m sure he will be. He’ll have that team ready to go come Sunday night and we know we’re going to have to play very well to be able to win the game."
A slip up Sunday against Cal might put UCLA (19-7, 10-3) back on the NCAA tournament bubble, which wouldn't be a good place to be with games against conference-leading Arizona and preseason conference favorite Washington still to come.
"We want to get the next one," Howland said, refusing to look ahead. "We’ll have our hands full."
With Arizona's victory over Washington on Saturday, UCLA can accomplish two things with a victory over California: Keep pace with the Wildcats (12-2) in the conference title race and give themselves some breathing room ahead of Washington (10-5) for second place.
A victory will also get UCLA into the 20-victory club -- a significant milestone in the college basketball world.
"Twenty wins signifies that you’ve had a fine season, a good year," Howland said. "It’s hard to do. I don’t know how many teams in our league will get 20 this year. Arizona is already there, I’m sure Washington will get there and hopefully we will."
The game against California is on Sunday as part of Fox Sports Net's national television package. Having the extra day between games is both a blessing and a curse, Howland said.
It gives him extra time to prepare for the game and an extra day for his players to rest, but it also takes away a day of preparation for Thursday's game against Arizona State.
"It's hard because the next week becomes shorter," Howland said. "And Sunday night is different than Sunday afternoon. But I always would prefer to have two days to prepare."
Howland said the Sunday night games are worth the sacrifice because of the exposure they create.
"They’ve explained to us that the best ratings we get throughout the year are those Sunday night games," Howland said. "So nationally we probably get the most people watching on our Sunday night games. It’s important for our program, it’s important for our league."
Spreading the wealth
UCLA has won 10 of its last 11 games and the recent surge is in large part because of the Bruins' balancing act.
Reeves Nelson (13.8), Malcolm Lee (13.4), Tyler Honeycutt (12.6), Joshua Smith (10.7) and Lazeric Jones (10.3) are all averaging in double figures scoring giving UCLA acces to an exclusive club.
Only six other Division I teams have five players averaging in double figures. UCLA, Missouri and Iowa State are the only three from BCS conferences.
"It’s huge because you can’t just plan to stop one or two guys and any night any one of our players can go off and have a big game so it’s critical to have that balance," Howland said.
Just win, baby
UCLA's habit of blowing big leads before hanging on to win is only a mild concern, Howland said.
UCLA has had double-digit, second-half leads dwindle away six times in its last 12 victories, but the important thng to remember, Howland said, it that the Bruins are 18-0 this season when they have opened a lead of 10 points or more at some point in the game.
"Obviously I’d much rather win by 20 than win by four," Howland said. "At the end of the day it’s about did you win or did you lose. ... Hopefully we can just keep winning. If we keep getting big leads then relinquishing them, but still holding on, I’ll be happy."
Big difference maker
Smith played only six minutes in the Jan. 20 meeting with California because he fell and hit his head on the floor early in the game.
He was on his way to a big game before the injury with four points and five rebounds in his short time and Howland expects Smith, averaging 12.8 points over the last seven games, will be a factor Sunday.
"Just having him in there, having those minutes is important for us," Howland said. "He’s playing well and he’s a presence for us inside offensively. He does a good job clogging up the middle defensively. He’s hard to shoot over. He’s not an easy guy to score over."
Sundae before Sunday
With an extra day between games, the Bruins took advantage by making a team trip to Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco, where they had ice cream sundaes.
All except for Smith, the freshman center who is listed at 305 pounds and has lost more than 50 pounds since last summer. He's continuing to try to drop pounds, so he passed on the ice cream.
"That was his choice," Howland said. "He decided."
Howland added that Smith missed out.
"The whipped cream that they make at Ghiradelli is very good — it’s real," Howland said. "It’s not out of a can. It’s outstanding."