LOS ANGELES -- Things seems pretty well back to normal around Westwood these days.
The UCLA Bruins have won four consecutive games, are ranked in the top 25 and sit tied with Oregon atop the Pac-12 standings. UCLA can clinch at least a share of the conference title with a sweep of Washington State and Washington this week and set itself up for a top-five seeding in the NCAA tournament should things go well the next two weeks.
It’s a far cry from where the Bruins were around Thanksgiving, when the team was struggling on the court, players seemed to be packing up and leaving on a daily basis, coach Ben Howland’s job was on thin ice and everybody wrote off the Bruins as an overrated bust.
Now, UCLA has fought its way back to the category of NCAA tournament sleeper. The Bruins have won six of their past seven games as they head into Wednesday’s game at last-place Washington State and appear to be peaking at just the right time. It’s not exactly where anyone would have pegged this team to be after an embarrassing loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Nov. 25.
“I honestly probably wouldn’t think it because we were struggling early on,” freshman guard Jordan Adams said. “I kept saying we were going to see how the season turns around or how we deal with that loss. I think it helped us. I still, to this day, think that the Cal Poly loss helped us.”
Apparently it did. The Bruins reeled off wins in 11 of their next 12 games after that loss -- including a 10-game win streak. They won against Missouri, won against California and are one of only two teams to have won at Colorado this season. They also swept the season series from highly regarded Arizona, and should the Bruins (22-7, 12-4) take care of business against Washington State (11-18, 2-14) and Washington (16-13, 8-8), they will win their first conference title since the Final Four team of 2008.
They've put themselves in this position by rededicating themselves to the fundamentals of team-first basketball instead of the selfish, me-first attitude that polluted the team early on. The players have applied themselves to coach Ben Howland’s defensive philosophies and made great strides on that end of the court while maintaining an offensive potency that has become the calling card of this season’s squad.
“It says a lot about us, and it also says it’s not about the way you start, it’s about the way you finish,” senior point guard Larry Drew II said. “I’m proud of my guys, the way that we stuck through it all season up until this point and just kept battling and fighting as hard as we could. We all know it’s about the name on the front of the jerseys and not the back.”
Kyle Anderson is Exhibit A. Anderson has sacrificed his natural role as point guard in order to play more at forward to help the team with rebounding. He leads the team with nine rebounds a game, and now that he’s had a few months to grow accustomed to the role, he’s beginning to flourish in other areas as well. He’s averaging 16.8 points over the past four games -- well above his season average of 10.3.
Drew has also raised his play. Initially a pass-first point guard looking to get the ball to leading scorers Shabazz Muhammad (18.3 PPG) and Adams (15 PPG), Drew has become a scoring weapon in recent games. He’s shooting 66.7 percent (12 of 18) on 3-point attempts over the past six games after making just 10 of 34 (29.4 percent) in the first 23 games.
David Wear, averaging 7.2 points and 5.2 rebounds for the season, is averaging 9.9 points and nine rebounds in the past three games while his twin brother, Travis, has been hampered by a sprained foot.
“We knew we were going to have plenty of opportunities to make up for those poorly played games,” Drew said. “We responded well, and we have to keep working hard if we want to reach the goals that we set for ourselves at the beginning of the season.”
Nothing is a done deal yet. On paper, it looks as if the Bruins should win both games this week, but nothing is guaranteed. UCLA has lost eight consecutive games at Washington and even though they have won an impressive 19 in a row at Washington State, 10 of those wins have come by five points or fewer.
“It’s really nothing short -- in my mind -- of miraculous,” Howland said of the streak in Pullman. “It’s going to end; I just don’t want it to be on Wednesday.”
Howland has tried to ingrain in his players that a last-place Washington State would like nothing better than to spoil UCLA’s title bid. UCLA’s freshman-laden roster, as well as Drew -- a transfer from North Carolina -- will be making the difficult trip for the first time. Add in UCLA’s big victory over Arizona Saturday and the thoughts of trying to end a losing streak at Washington, and this becomes a classic trap game.
“I’m wary of this game,” Howland said.
That’s because UCLA hasn’t performed well in these situations all season. The Bruins have been great with their backs against the wall but have struggled in times of prosperity. They began the season with a lot of hype and ranked No. 13 but plummeted from the rankings by losing three of their first eight games.
Their 10-game win streak got them back in the rankings, but they then proceeded to lose three of their next four games. Finally back in the rankings, the Bruins hope they have learned a lesson from past failures.
“I think it humbled us,” Adams said of struggling early in the season. “I think early on we thought we were hot stuff so it kind of humbled us and made us play harder.”
If that is true, the Bruins may just finish strong and meet some of the high expectations thrust upon them when they signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class last year. And who would have predicted that when the calendar flipped to December?