Pac-10 tournament primer: UCLA

March, 8, 2011
3/08/11
12:24
PM PT
Josh Smith, Ben Howland and Tyler Honeycutt Getty Images, US PresswireUCLA is probably in the NCAA Tournament, but could help its cause with a strong Pac-10 showing.
UCLA enters the Pac-10 tournament as the No. 2-seeded team after slightly exceeding expectations and finishing second in the regular-season conference standings.

The Bruins (22-9, 13-5) went 19-5 after a 3-4 start this season and won 13 of their final 16 games this season.

An improved defensive effort led to the turnaround as UCLA held 10 of its final 16 opponents to 40 percent shooting or lower. Nine of UCLA's first 15 opponents shot better than 44 percent and five of them shot 50 percent or better.

The Bruins were projected to place third in the conference this season behind Washington and Arizona, but they are still disappointed in coming up short in their quest for a regular-season title and now must refocus their efforts on winning the conference tournament.

UCLA has a first-round bye and will face either Oregon (14-16, 7-11) or Arizona State (12-18, 4-14) Thursday in the second round. UCLA swept both of those teams this season.

Sophomore forwards Reeves Nelson (14.3 points, 9.3 rebounds) and Tyler Honeycutt (12.5, 7.3) and junior guard Malcolm Lee (13.8 points) were named to the All-conference team and are the team's statistical leaders.

Freshman center Joshua Smith was an all-freshman team selection and has become a dominant force in the low post during the second half of the season. Point guard Lazeric Jones, despite battling injuries, has grown comfortable running the offense and sixth-man Jerime Anderson has become a valuable contributor off the bench.

THE COACH

Ben Howland's biggest challenge this season was to take a young team and mold it into a cohesive unit.

The Bruins have no seniors on the roster and entered the season without a true on-court leader. Plus, Howland's tough, man-to-man defense took a step back last season because the Bruins played zone for much of the year.

But Howland seems to have gotten the team to buy in, thanks in part to junior guard Malcolm Lee stepping up as a leader by example and sophomore forward Reeves Nelson, the vocal leader, working hard to improve his defensive effort.

The players seems to know and accept their roles. Having four players averaging in double-figures scoring and a fifth at 9.7 indicates that the players are playing with a team-first mentality and that's a credit to the job Howland has done with a team that starts a freshman, two sophomores and a junior college transfer.

BIGGEST SURPRISE SO FAR

Reeves Nelson maturation.

Nelson's talent has never been an issue and it's no surprise that he's the team's leading scorer and rebounder, but he has simply grown up throughout he course of the season.

Early on, he'd go through extended periods of pouting and playing with low energy when things didn't go his way. He'd be short and dismissive with the coaches, his teammates and the media and it seemed as if the Bruins might have to deal with a spoiled prima donna type all season.

He still has his moments, but Nelson has grown up a lot throughout the course of this season, asking to guard the opponent's best player, injecting the team with energy when needed and becoming one of the most insightful players on the court.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT SO FAR

The inability to put together a complete game on a consistent basis has haunted the Bruins since early on in the season and it ended up costing them the Pac-10 title.

UCLA seeems to go through periods of lackluster effort in just about every game and it became magnified late in the season when the Bruins scored 19 first-half points in an overtime loss at California, then gave up a 14-0 run over a five-minute stretch at Washington.

Those two stretches of poor play within single games basically let Arizona win the conference title. The Bruins will have to figure out the formula to playing hard for 40 minutes every night in order to make a run at the conference tournament title.

WHAT THE BRUINS NEED TO ACCOMPLISH

In almost every NCAA tournament projection at this point, UCLA is already in. The Bruins pretty much secured their spot by beating Arizona Feb. 26, but a loss in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament might make for a somewhat awkward and uncomfortable selection Sunday.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi has UCLA's RPI at 34 going into the tournament so that and a resume that includes victories over Brigham Young, Arizona and St. John's all but assures UCLA a spot in the big dance.

Defeating Arizona State or Oregon in the second round of the Pac-10 tournament will make everyone sleep a little easier, though. A trip to the finals or a conference tournament championship will serve to improve UCLA's seeding in the NCAA tournament.

Right now the Bruins are projected to be seeded No. 7. Winning the tournament might jump them up to a No. 5 seeding.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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