LOS ANGELES -- For much of this season, the UCLA Bruins have looked and acted like a team under investigation by the fun police.
Their faces have been filled with looks of stress, their energy level is routinely low and you hardly ever see chest bumps, high-fives or hugs even after thrilling plays.
That began to change during the final minutes of a comeback 65-63 victory over Texas in which the Bruins (6-3) erased an eight-point deficit over the final four minutes. The players showed emotion after getting defensive stops and let out primal yells when scoring big baskets.
In other words, they looked as if they were having fun. They hope those final minutes are a sign of things to come, beginning Saturday night against Prairie View A&M (5-5) at Pauley Pavilion.
"That's one thing we do have to get better at is our body language and just having fun out there," leading scorer Jordan Adams said.
For much of this season so far, there hasn't been much cause for fun and celebration. The Bruins are not nearly the level of team many expected them to be, with the bad taste of a loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo sure to linger throughout the season.
Certainly a comeback victory over Texas is no reason to celebrate just yet. The Longhorns, after all, lost earlier this season to Division III Chaminade. But at the very least, the final minutes of that game taught the young Bruins about what it takes to win games at the Division I level.
"Of course we would like to go out there and beat every team by 30, which I feel we can do if we come out there and play with the energy and enthusiasm that we saw the last two minutes against Texas," point guard Larry Drew II said. "If we play like that the entire game, I really feel like we can beat anybody on our schedule by double digits. That's just a matter of whether or not we're going to have the heart to do that."
It's also a matter of finding the defense to play that way on a consistent basis. So far, UCLA players don't seem to have bought in to the tough, high-energy mindset coach Ben Howland's man-to-man defense requires.
Players have appeared passive, even lazy on the defensive end. They aren't switching properly, aren't running back in transition and aren't helping each other when somebody gets beat off the dribble.
"We're all capable of doing it, we just take plays off and we're just not doing it," Adams said. "Once we all just click at the same time and focus on our defense, I think we'll be better."
The team has played only one real game in two weeks and has been going all-out in practice during that time in an effort to improve the man-to-man defense. With school out now for the next month, the players will have even more time to work out the kinks, and a six-game homestand means there won't be any travel time to disrupt things.
Freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who acknowledges conditioning issues have prevented him from playing with the necessary energy level to be effective, says he sees improvements every day.
"I think we're a couple of practices away from it," he said. "Guys have got to get tougher. We've got to get tough. As we look back on the film, we're just not that tough of a team yet, and that's just something we have to buckle down and do if we want to be a good team."
Howland says he will still employ a zone defense at times this season but is insistent the best road to success in college basketball goes through the man-to-man. The team is much further behind than he would like it to be at this point, but he said the way the Bruins played in the final minutes against Texas was a sign they are improving.
He warned, however, that the team must not look at that win as some sort of milestone.
"It's a continued growing process, and we have to learn quickly," Howland said. "We open up conference [play] soon. It's not like we reached a point. It's continual. It continues to hopefully get better and grow."
And if that happens, the games will be a lot more fun.
"We try to make sure we always have fun, but it's definitely much more fun to get a win," Kyle Anderson said. "It makes for a better trip home and turns into better practices, and then we get better. Success is always more fun."