UCLA has reached a pivotal point in the season as the Bruins prepare to hit the road for a two-game Pac-10 Conference swing through Oregon.
A two-game Pac-10 losing streak has cast doubts on UCLA's ability to contend for the conference title and the Bruins (9-6, 1-2 in Pac-10) almost certainly need a sweep against Oregon State (7-8, 2-2) and Oregon (7-9, 0-4) on Thursday and Saturday to keep from falling too far behind in the conference title race.
UCLA faces Oregon State in Corvallis at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and will play at Oregon's new Matthew Knight Arena Saturday at 2 p.m.
"We can either sink or swim on this trip," UCLA guard Malcolm Lee said. "It’s an opportunity to get back on track if we go up there and take care of the Oregons or it’s an opportunity to keep proceeding this two game losing streak."
On paper, the Bruins should be able to take care of business, but that presents a problem. UCLA has had a tendency to play down to its competition this year, with a loss to Montana mixed in with closer-than-they-should-have-been victories over Pepperdine, UC Davis and UC Irvine.
But coming off a couple of tough losses against Washington and USC should help prevent a letdown, center Joshua Smith said.
"I know our guys will be up for these games," Smith said. "We know they are two teams that are kind of down, but we need these wins and so we’re going to be focused."
Another factor working against the Bruins is the these are road games. UCLA is 1-4 away from Pauley Pavillion this season, having defeated only Brigham Young in a pseudo-home game at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
Plus the Bruins will probably face a good deal of zone defense against Oregon State--another Achilles heel for UCLA--so a sweep, despite playing two teams with losing records, won't be easy.
"As far as we know, we don’t have a good record ourselves, so we have to approach them as anybody," Lee said. "We know our back are against the wall losing two games out of three conference games. We feel the sense of urgency that 'OK we just lost two in a row, we just started the Pac 10, we need these two wins.' It’s real vital to go up there and get these two wins."
Here, coach Ben Howland and his team discuss Thursday's game against Oregon State: