What a difference a month makes.
It wasn't too long ago that UCLA was considered a marginal pick to make the NCAA tournament, but with eight victories in their last nine games, the Bruins (17-7, 8-3) are now looked at as a shoo-in for a tournament berth and are a game behind first-place Arizona in the Pac-10 title race with seven games to play.
So what's more important, getting into the tournament or winning the conference?
"I think the Pac-10 was always our focus," guard Jerime Anderson said. "Once we get into Pac-10 play, we're trying to win our league and then the NCAA tournament will take care of itself. If we do what our goal is -- and that's to win the Pac-10 -- then we'll have a good seed and we'll get into the tournament."
UCLA started the season 3-4, but is 14-3 since, with quality victories over Brigham Young and St. John's. And even coach Ben Howland, legendary for keeping focused on the task at hand and refusing to be tempted into looking into the big picture, has taken notice.
"I really am pleased with our progress," he said. "We're obviously finding ways to win. We've won a lot of close games, which is the sign of a good team."
Indeed, 11 of UCLA's 17 victories are by 10 points or fewer. And Howland wants to make sure the Bruins realize those games could easily have gone the other way.
"We've got to take care of business one game at a time," he said. "Any time you look past your next opponent, you're setting yourself up for failure. I don't care what level you're at, that's true.
Oregon State worrisome to Howland
The next opponent is Oregon State (9-14, 4-8), which visits Pauley Pavilion on Saturday for a 1 p.m. game that will be televised by Prime Ticket.
The Beavers have lost eight of their last 10 games but worry Howland because they are the only team in the league that has defeated both Arizona and Washington.
Oregon State also gave UCLA a run for its money on Jan. 13, when the Beavers erased a 17-point UCLA lead in the second half before UCLA pulled out a 62-57 victory. Howland said he would remind his team about that game Friday at practice.
"We were very fortunate to win up there," he said. "It’s a 40-minute game and we have to do a good job."
Oregon State uses a pressure defense and has a roster filled with long, athletic players, so it's no surprise they Beavers lead the nation in steals.
"They’re a hard team to play against," said Howland, whose team committed 21 turnovers in the last meeting with Oregon State. "I think Oregon State is very dangerous. They worry the heck out of me."
One saving grace is that Oregon State has not been nearly as good on the road as it has been at home. The Beavers are 1-8 outside of Corvallis, Ore. UCLA has a 12-game win streak against Oregon State and has not lost to the Beavers at Pauley Pavilion since 2003.
A large part of UCLA's recent success is an improving defense.
The Bruins have held their last four opponents to less than 40 percent shooting and only three opponents in the last 10 games have shot better than 40 percent.
"We’re getting better defensively and that’s been gratifying," Howland said. "We’re getting better slowly but surely. It takes time and our field-goal percentage defense has shown that. ... Any time you hold a team below 40 percent from the field, it gives you a good chance."
Honeycutt shooting blanks
Bruins forward Tyler Honeycutt is mired in a shooting slump.
Over the last five games, he's shooting only 27.5 percent and has made only one of 15 three-point attempts. In the previous six games, he shot 41 percent and made 11 of 20 (36.6 percent) three-point attempts.
But while Honeycutt's shooting numbers have dropped, the rest of his game has taken off. He's averaging 9.4 rebounds over the last five games with 18 assists and nine turnovers. In the previous six games, he averaged 8.5 rebounds with 16 assists and 21 turnovers.
"I feel like I'm the type of player that if I'm not scoring, I can help the team in another way," Honeycutt said. "Dishing out the ball, keeping my turnovers low, rebounding, blocking shots, whatever I have to do to get a win."
Honeycutt leads the Pac-10 with 39 blocked shots and is fourth in rebounding with 8.1 per game for the season, so Howland isn't concerned that is scoring average has dropped from 17.7 on Dec. 2 to 12.6 heading into Saturday's game.
"One thing that’s hard with him in particular, I’m playing him so many minutes," Howland said of Honeycutt, who has averaged 35.5 minutes over the last eight games. "We need him in there...He does a lot of things. It’s not just shooting. I think his shots will be fine. I have a lot of confidence in his shot."