LOS ANGELES -- UCLA's nonconference season began with turmoil; its conference season begins with much more calm.
The Bruins (10-3) open Pac-12 play Thursday against California with a five-game win streak, a scorching offense that has helped cool Ben Howland's hot seat and a quiet sense of confidence that was nowhere to be found during the early weeks of the season.
From day one, a seemingly endless state of chaos surrounded the Bruins and Howland. NCAA investigations, embarrassing losses, lackluster play and player defections had the Bruins pegged as one of the biggest busts of the season.
But the flip of the calendar to a new year comes with a serenity the Bruins hadn't had since their highly touted freshman class arrived on campus over the summer. The Bruins, coming off their best win of the season in a 97-94 victory over then-No. 7 Missouri, are slowly beginning to resemble a team that could make a run at the conference title and in the NCAA tournament.
“We faced some adversity in the beginning of the season, but the win streak that we’ve got going and the win over Missouri, I think, put that behind us, and we’ve really settled into our identity and who we are,” center Travis Wear said.
The Bruins found that identity on the offensive end of the court. They are averaging 87.4 points per game during their current five-game win streak and they are averaging 93 points in the past four games. They are shooting 52.6 percent from the floor during their current streak and have scored 90 or more points in consecutive games for the first time since 2001.
The Bruins appear more comfortable on the court, more settled in their roles and more confident that they can execute than the team that looked lost and confused in starting the season 5-3. Those Bruins averaged 76.9 points and shot 46 percent.
“This is pretty much what I expected from us,” point guard Larry Drew II said. “We came in this year with that mindset that we were really going to get out on the break and push the ball more than we had in previous years.”
It just took a while to get going. The Bruins took a trip to China over the summer, and talked about how they were playing an up-tempo and unselfish brand of basketball as they averaged 93.3 points in three exhibition games.
But when the games began for real, the team regressed. The unselfishness disappeared as the players went into quick-shot mode. The Bruins averaged 17.4 assists per game and topped 20 assists as a team only twice in the first eight games. Over the past five, they are averaging 20.4, and they have had at least 20 in five consecutive games.
“We’re starting to get back to that way of playing,” Drew said. “Just real fun team basketball. Everybody is sharing the ball. Everybody is unselfish. It’s a real good problem to have. Everybody trying to be unselfish and make the extra pass.”
While the offense is finally starting to click and giving off the impression that UCLA can simply outscore opponents in a run-and-gun style of play, Howland remains concerned about the defense. UCLA won despite giving up 70, 78 and 94 points in its past three games.
Those three opponents have shot 48.3, 47.4 and 47.5 percent, and UCLA currently is last among Pac-12 teams in scoring defense at 69.5 points per game and 11th in field goal defense, having allowed teams to shoot 41.9 percent for the season.
“We’ll be a better team when we get that end figured out a little better,” Howland said. “You always like to be a team that has a defense to rely on. Night in and night out, you can always control your effort on the defensive end and your ability to play defense. There will be night where you’re not shooting as well.”
The Bruins have shown signs of playing good defense. Against Texas, for instance, they held the Longhorns to four points in the final 3:43 to overcome an eight-point deficit. Prairie View A&M shot only 34.4 percent against UCLA, and Missouri scored only two points in the final 5:34 as UCLA erased an 86-77 lead. The Tigers then shot 1-for-9 in overtime.
“We’re getting better,” Jordan Adams said. “It’s still a work in progress but we’re making a little improvement. We’re busting our butts off in practice every day to work on our defense. We show spurts of it; we just have to make it consistent through the whole game.”
Howland built his reputation on tough, defensive-minded teams and used that approach to take UCLA to the Final Four in three consecutive years from 2006 to '08. This season’s team is a far cry from those.
UCLA has scored 90 or more points four times already this season. In his previous nine seasons, the Bruins topped 90 only 10 times. Friday’s victory over Missouri was the first time in the Howland era that UCLA gave up 90 points or more in a victory.
“Part of that is how we’re playing,” Howland said. “We’re playing faster, and there are more possessions.”
It’s an adjustment for Howland but one he’s willing to make with the collection of offensive talent he has -- especially considering that Shabazz Muhammad, Adams and Kyle Anderson are freshmen still figuring out defense at the college level.
“We just want to win," Howland said. “It’s about winning margin. I’m not looking at the stats and saying we have to hold them under 60.”
For nearly a month, Howland has been looking at winning margins, and because of that, the Bruins enter Pac-12 play with some momentum and the hope that they can get into the hunt for the conference title.
And, of course, a much-needed respite from the mayhem of the first month of the season.