UCLA deals with case of Saturday blues

LOS ANGELES -- Thursday and Friday have been happy days for the UCLA Bruins men's basketball team so far during Pac-12 Conference play. Saturday? What a day.

The day most nine-to-fivers look forward to most has become a pain in the Bruins' backside, as they have struggled to back up good games on Thursday with another two days later in playing the Pac-12's traditional Thursday-Saturday schedule. Freshmen Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad have dealt with illnesses over the past couple of weeks, but UCLA's biggest ailment appears to be the Saturday blues.

In conference play, the Bruins are 4-0 on Thursdays and 2-2 on Saturdays, including losses in each of the past two Saturday games. They are averaging 73.5 points and shooting 45 percent on Thursdays, and averaging 68.25 points and shooting 43.1 percent on Saturdays.

Defensively, the Bruins have given up 63.75 points per game on Thursdays and 72.25 on Saturdays, while opponents are shooting 39.4 percent on Thursdays and 42.4 percent in Saturday games.

"We lost two Saturday games, and you kind of look at it as, 'Did we prepare well enough for these Saturday games? Do we have to take Fridays more seriously as a team?'" Anderson said. "So it's just adjustments we have to make as far as being mentally and physically prepared."

For Thursday games, coach Ben Howland and his staff have four days to prepare the team. For a Saturday game, there is only one day. It's not an excuse, however, because the same is true for both teams, though Howland has a notoriously singular focus on the next game on the schedule.

He routinely acknowledges that he pays no attention to the Saturday opponent each week until the Thursday game is over. This season, it seems to be hurting the Bruins. Last week, for example, the Bruins played their best game of the season in a road win Thursday at No. 8 Arizona. Two days later, they fell flat in losing by 18 -- their largest margin of defeat this season -- at Arizona State, which was supposed to be the easier of the two games.

In hindsight, it became very clear to the Bruins that they poured everything they had into the Arizona game and had little left for Arizona State.

"We were coming off a quick turnaround game, that's so tough physically," David Wear said. "And the week coming up to it, you invest so much into it and you kind of just leave it all out there on the court, and you realize you have to turn around and do the same thing again in 24 hours. That was tough."

The inconsistency showed mostly in rebounding. Arizona is among the top rebounding teams in the conference, but UCLA outboarded the Wildcats, 45-44. Arizona State ranks near the bottom of the conference in rebounding, but the Sun Devils dominated the battle of the boards, 53-33.

Howland acknowledged he might have pushed the team a little too hard the week leading into the Arizona game and it showed up during the Arizona State game.

"You could tell we were spent," Howland said. "Maybe we were a little fatigued on Saturday, probably from how hard we went all week prior to the Arizona game. ... You can overdo it and beat your team up. There's a fine line, and we're trying to find that."

The Thursday-Saturday discrepancy has become a pattern, though. On Jan. 17, UCLA cruised to an easy win over Oregon State in a Thursday game but lost to Oregon on Jan. 19. The first week of conference play, UCLA routed California by 14 on Thursday, then squeaked out a three-point Saturday win over Stanford. The next week, UCLA won at Utah in a Thursday game that was fairly close the whole way, then nearly blew a 61-48 lead in the final 6:49 during a 78-75 victory at Colorado.

It's clear from the first month of Pac-12 play that UCLA is better prepared for the games on Thursday, and the key to balancing out the inconsistent play from game to game, freshman Adams said, was better preparation on Friday.

"Staying focused that day in between when we go over the other team's stuff," Adams said. "Not joking around in it. Just staying focused 100 percent."

It won't be an issue this week, as the Bruins have a Wednesday meeting this week with crosstown rival USC and then have the rest of the week off. It will be a welcome respite from the developing trend and give the Bruins a chance to rest up before beginning the second half of the conference schedule.

Another trend that has developed for the Bruins is they have not lost consecutive games this season. They say it is because they hate losing so much that they return to practice after each loss with a renewed determination and this week is no exception.

"We were all ready and really wanted to get that game behind us and get back on the court again and start preparing for another game, just to forget everything about that last game," Wear said. "We come back out here, we're ready to focus. You can tell the intensity is there just because everyone is so miserable about how the game went last time, so we're ready for USC."

Wear said the crosstown rivalry part of the game only ramps up the determination to get another win.

"We realize that this rivalry has been going for a long time and that this is a must-win for us," Wear said. "We know what the fans expect and what all the supporters of UCLA expect, so coming to this game we realize there is some pressure."

It's a good thing, then, that the game won't be played on a Saturday.