Bruins in first, but staying there won't be easy

LOS ANGELES -- Welcome back to first place, UCLA.

The Bruins, less than two weeks removed from an embarrassing loss to USC that dropped them three games out of first place in the Pac-12 Conference, are back in a tie for the top spot in the standings.

UCLA (18-6, 8-3) has a two-game sweep over Washington Huskies and Washington State to thank, as well as losses by Oregon (19-5, 8-3) and Arizona (20-3, 8-3) last week that created a three-way logjam at the top.

It’s been a three-week journey back to the top for the Bruins, who started conference play with five consecutive wins before relinquishing first place in a 76-67 loss to the Ducks on Jan. 19. Some thought the Bruins would never get back, but now that they are, they intend to stay.

“I think it’s a relief, and I think it’s a blessing also,” said forward Shabazz Muhammad. “There are some games we lost that we shouldn’t have lost, and I mean I think it’s a blessing, and we’re going to try to take advantage of it and have a strong run.”

UCLA has won consecutive games for the first time in nearly a month, and the Bruins hope to turn that into a streak when they face California Thursday at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN2. It won’t be easy as the Golden Bears (14-9, 6-5) are a much better team now than they were when UCLA handled them, 79-65, in the Jan. 3 Pac-12 opener.

Cal, in fact, is a big reason why UCLA was able to climb back into first place. The Golden Bears defeated Arizona Sunday, and last week defeated Oregon. They have won three of their past four games as coach Mike Montgomery has rounded his team into form.

“He is obviously a Hall of Fame coach,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “He’s closing in on 700 career victories in his illustrious career. His teams have always improved throughout the year, and this team is no exception. They’re really executing well offensively.”

It could be a blessing for UCLA that the Golden Bears are coming off that road win at Arizona. A win like that will get the attention of the Bruins, who have tended to look past opponents at times this season. This will be their first rematch of the conference slate, and knowing this is a team that has improved since their last meeting should help keep UCLA focused.

“We know Cal has gotten a few big wins these last couple of weeks, and they are going to be ready to play and try to turn their season around,” freshman swingman Kyle Anderson said. “We’re just going to be ready for whatever they have.”

Jordan Adams said he didn’t expect Arizona to lose, but said that just reinforces the parity in the conference and the need to stay on your toes every game.

“In this conference anybody can beat anybody, I think,” Adams said. “You just have to play hard and you can’t relax at any point.”

One thing is certain now: If UCLA wins the rest of its games, the Bruins will do no worse than tie for the Pac-12 regular-season title and be seeded No. 1 or No. 2 for the Pac-12 tournament. There are still seven games to go, however, and five of those are on the road.

That’s why Howland says observers will have to be patient when it comes to getting a Pac-12 championship.

“Going into the season, I thought this thing would come down to the last weekend,” he said. “I still think that whoever wins our conference, it’ll be decided the last weekend of the conference.”