LOS ANGELES -- Every once in a while, even Ben Howland will let the coach speak fall by the wayside.
Howland steadfastly views one game at a time and tries to approach each game with the same amount of vigor, but on special occasions he'll acknowledge that some games are bigger than others.
One of those comes Saturday, when Howland's No. 24 UCLA Bruins (15-3, 5-0 Pac-12) play the No. 21 Oregon Ducks (15-2, 4-0) in a nationally televised litmus test that will give an indication of how seriously the Bruins must be taken as a contender for both the conference title, and a high seeding in the NCAA tournament.
"This game is very important," Howland said Friday during a conference call with reporters. "Look at both teams -- they are 29, we're 31 in the RPI. They're 4-0, we're 5-0. I don't think it's lost on anybody that this is obviously an important game."
Conference title ramifications and RPI improvement are one thing, but perhaps the biggest factor at stake here is the judgment in the court of public opinion. This will be a featured Saturday afternoon game on CBS across the country. UCLA doesn't get many of these opportunities, mostly playing night games on the West Coast that most of the nation misses.
Because of that, there remains some skepticism in the college basketball world about the validity of UCLA's current 10-game win streak. Oregon, on a six-game win streak, is a proven commodity with victories over No. 7 Arizona and a road win at UNLV, so this is a chance for UCLA to show that its streak, which includes a victory over No. 17 Missouri, is no fluke.
"Oregon is very good," Howland said. "Oregon is the best team we've played since Missouri. ... They've got excellent personnel, depth, size, the ability to shoot. ... They've got a lot of good pieces, and that's why they're going to be an NCAA tournament team and do really well in the tournament come March."
One key to stemming the Ducks will be to keep them off the glass. Oregon has outrebounded opponents by 9.2 per game, leading the conference and ranking No. 7 in the nation in rebound margin.
It won't be easy for the Bruins, who have been outrebounded in five of their past six games and have given up 35.9 rebounds per game to rank No. 10 in the Pac-12 in rebounding defense.
"This team tomorrow that we're playing in Oregon -- that's where they are really good," Howland said. "They are out-boarding their opponent by nine rebounds a game. They are top two in the conference, along with Arizona. I've always believed that rebound margin is such a huge factor in being a really good team."
It hasn't been too much of a factor for UCLA so far. The Bruins have won all seven games this season in which they've been outrebounded, including an overtime victory over Missouri, which won the battle of the boards, 50-36.
Come to play
Motivation shouldn't be an issue for the Bruins in the high-profile clash with the Ducks, but it might have been a factor in UCLA's slow start Thursday against Oregon State.
The Bruins fell behind, 14-9, in the first five minutes before taking control of the game. Howland said Thursday night that Oregon State's quick start "woke us up," and reiterated Friday that the Bruins must come ready from the opening tip to play every night.
"You have to be ready to play every opponent at your very best," Howland said. "Anybody can beat anybody on a given night. We've already learned that lesson this year, and we don't want to suffer through another lesson again."
That lesson was a 70-68 loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Nov. 25.
Center Tony Parker had his best stretch of the season during the first half of Thursday's victory over Oregon State. He scored four points and had two blocked shots in three minutes of the first half, and got to the free-throw line on two separate occasions.
The second half didn't go quite as well, as he had a shot blocked and mishandled a couple of passes down low, but the signs of improvement were encouraging to Howland.
"He's getting better," Howland said. "Tony is improving and Tony is going to be, I think, a real force for us, and so I'm excited about how he is developing."