The UCLA Bruins are starting to look like a team that can contend for a conference crown. Key word is 'starting'.
UCLA has put up three straight wins after a disappointing Bay Area road trip. First they held down the Arizona schools in succession, and then went a few blocks over from their temporary home in the Sports Arena and dismantled the USC Trojans.
It wasn't even a particularly close game. UCLA took control midway through the first half, then took advantage of USC fail to set up their offense. The Bruins then used their superior athleticism to break down the usually pesky Trojan defense. Lazeric Jones looks more and more comfortable running the point for the Bruins, and Jerime Anderson has proven to be a capable bench guard, as both had good performances against the overmatched USC guards.
But what Ben Howland has to be really thrilled about is the defensive side of the ball. The Bruins played one of their best defensive games of the season, hauling in an incredible 44 rebounds to the meager 19 of the Trojans. USC shot 36% on their two point shots and overall from the field (only slightly below their 42% two point shooting). David Wear and Travis Wear have been rightly criticized for their sub-par defensive skills and instincts, but they combined for 15 rebounds to go along with their 32 points. Add in three blocks from Anthony Stover off the bench and UCLA's bigs are finally playing as advertised.
It was basically as uneventful as a rivalry game could be, and confirmed the same trends we've been noticing about this team recently. [Norman] Powell is awesome, rebounds well, and needs to play more. The Wears are fantastic when they choose their shots wisely, and at least attempt to defensive rebound. Lazeric Jones is going to shoot, and we need him to make a good percentage against good teams. Smith still isn't in great shape but better than he was at the start of the season and still commits bad fouls. So no surprises really. The only question remaining is whether Utah or usc is the worst team in the conference, and I think usc just took the lead.
it's USC, an historically inept offense. The Trojans have broken only 50 points once in conference play, meaning the football team would probably have been better-suited for battle on the hardwood. And neither Arizona school can be considered a functional offense; the Wildcats have shown the ability to compete; the Sun Devils are almost as inept as the Trojans. But the ability to force bad shooting percentages against overmatched teams are encouraging signs that the players are starting to trust each other, which could lead to bigger progress down the line.
The big question is whether this game can travel? In their four games against worthy foes away from Los Angeles (Kansas, Michigan, Cal, Stanford), UCLA is 0-4. They now face probably their biggest test against an Oregon State squad steaming from getting swept in Arizona; I'd guess they're ready to put up some points in this contest and test whether UCLA's sudden defensive makeover is a mirage. Oregon is another must-win, although the Ducks still are in the hunt for a Pac-12 crown and aren't likely to concede anything easy at home.
Still, considering how badly the season started for the Bruins, they have to like where they stand in the Pac-12.