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Sunday, February 3, 2008
UCLA steamrolling Pac-10 since the USC loss

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

WESTWOOD, Calif. -- UCLA's home loss to USC two weeks ago didn't provoke any kind of decisive team meeting.

Everyone on the Bruins knew what was at stake.

But UCLA coach Ben Howland didn't mind reminding them that the best route to San Antonio -- the site of this year's Final Four -- was through the first two rounds in Anaheim and the Phoenix regional as the West's No. 1 seed. And there was no way UCLA would get that coveted No. 1 seed without winning the Pac-10.

"That's what coach said: We can't get as far as we want unless we win the Pac-10," said UCLA sophomore guard Russell Westbrook.

Well, do you think they listened?

The loss to USC, which junior Josh Shipp said left the UCLA players "disgusted with ourselves," might have given some teams in the Pac-10 hope that they could unseat the Bruins for the conference title. The past four games, though, probably have crushed that chance.

Mathematically it's still possible that UCLA -- holding a one-game lead in the loss column on second-place Stanford, which already lost to the Bruins -- could drop out of first place. But it's hard to make the argument.

Since the loss to USC, UCLA has swept through Oregon and Oregon State on the road, then totally dismantled Arizona State by 33 and pounced on previously hot Arizona 82-60 Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion -- the largest margin of victory in the series since 1983.

"It was a blessing in disguise losing that game [to USC] because we kept getting better," said star freshman Kevin Love. "And for me, individually, it was great to get those wins in front of all those people [in Eugene] who hate me for not going to that school."

Howland said the two wins over the Arizona schools were the best combined games the Bruins have played this season.

"I couldn't be happier with our team right now," the coach said.

They're very physical. They got into us defensively and didn't allow us to make normal cuts. They scouted us well and knew all our plays. They outplayed us.

--Chase Budinger

The only negative about this game was yet another injury for a team that has survived plenty this season. In the second half of the blowout, UCLA junior Luc Richard Mbah a Moute suffered what a team spokesman later called an "inverted ankle sprain" on his left ankle, adding that the forward was "questionable" for Thursday's game at Washington State.

Mbah a Moute's injury is about the only thing the Bruins have to worry about right now. The defense was once again outstanding, and UCLA held Arizona to its sixth-lowest point total of the season.

"They're very physical," Arizona sophomore forward Chase Budinger said. "They got into us defensively and didn't allow us to make normal cuts. They scouted us well and knew all our plays. They outplayed us."

"Coach wants us to jump on teams as soon as the tip," said Westbrook, who was inserted into the starting lineup four games ago after coming off the bench the previous five.

"We've just got great team unity right now," said Westbrook, who scored a career-high 21 points.

Howland credited the athletic, quick perimeter of Darren Collison and Westbrook for igniting the defense again the past four games. Love said he's finally comfortable on the defensive assignments, too.

"It was a big adjustment, I'm not going to lie," Love said of going from high school to college. "The first part of the season, I felt like I was never going to get it down. But I kept listening to the coaches."

Love said he always needed to be in a defensive stance and had to get used to not taking plays off defensively, a luxury he was afforded in high school against lesser competition.

"I had to get through my second wind, too," said Love, who recorded his 13th double-double with 26 points and 11 rebounds.

With the second half of the Pac-10 regular season beginning Thursday in Pullman, Love and the rest of the Bruins look as though they've hit their second gear, too.

The road ahead to the Pac-10 title, and ultimately a No. 1 seed in Anaheim and Phoenix, isn't a sure thing with five of the next nine games on the road, though.

Washington State (Feb. 7) is tough in Pullman, but the Cougars just got swept at home by Cal and Stanford. USC (Feb. 17) beat the Bruins, but sweeping UCLA -- regardless of the venue -- is hard to predict. And after what UCLA did Saturday to Arizona, would anyone think the Bruins will fall in Tucson (March 2)?

Nope, didn't think so. And if that's the case, then Howland has the Bruins back and heading toward a Pac-10 title, a No. 1 seed and, they hope, an easier path to San Antonio.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.