STANFORD, Calif. -- Given a chance to praise his team for winning 10 of its past 11 games, UCLA coach Ben Howland said the Bruins were improving and then countered with a compliment -- a backhanded one.
“I know we’re great for television,” Howland mused. “This is a great team for TV ratings and keeping the fans involved for the sponsors all the way ‘til the very end.”
In surviving Stanford on the road with a 69-65 win, UCLA once again showed off its propensity to let opponents back into the game. But a Bruins team -- one that is without a single senior -- ultimately did not break and managed to maintain second place in the Pac-10 standings.
Howland might have a few more gray hairs because of it, but young UCLA is growing up before his eyes.
A month after needing to claw its way back against Stanford at home, the Bruins never let the Cardinal have a lead. Aside from Jeremy Green draining three 3-pointers in the final minute and a half to make the game a little too close for comfort, the 19-7 Bruins controlled the game and looked very much unlike last year’s much-maligned squad that not only missed the NCAA tournament, but also went 14-18.
The Bruins start two sophomores, a freshman and a junior college transfer at point guard in Lazeric Jones -- who plays with wrapping over his sprained left wrist -- and team has gotten better with time.
Reeves Nelson, who had 18 points and seven rebounds, might play out of control sometimes, but continues to be reliably productive. Tyler Honeycutt, who hit four 3-pointers and scored 16 points overall, might take an ill-advised shot every now and then, but continues to show off a skill set that makes him a future pro.
And 6-foot-10, 305-pound freshman center Joshua Smith, who had 13 points and nine rebounds while coming off the bench in order to stay out of foul trouble, has gradually learned to effectively throw his weight around and make a meaningful impact inside.
“He's like two guys out there and takes up a lot of lane when he's in,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins told reporters. “It reminds me when I played against Shaquille O'Neal. He's different than any other different post player you face in college.”
At one point 3-4 after a loss at home to Montana, UCLA is now in a position where Smith is talking about winning the Pac-10 outright.
Games against first-place Arizona and a road game against preseason favorite Washington loom, but during this stretch, the team has taken care of business at home and is now focused a road sweep in Northern California that would make those games all the more important.
“Now we play more together,” Smith said. “Early in the season when we made mistakes, guys were yelling at each other.
“We’ve grown up a lot. Every game, we’re learning that much more about ourselves.”
After the game Howland brought up the positives of each player before then mentioning areas of improvement. The 35-26 rebounding edge against Stanford was welcomed, and the defensive effort of Malcolm Lee was noted as usual, but Howland also knows the team must cut down on turnovers of the unforced variety.
“We have to continue to grow and get better at it,” Howland said.
Should the growth and winning continue, it’ll be that much more of a reason for television viewers -- especially those in March -- to stay tuned to what's brewing at UCLA.