It's not often that you would characterize a game against the last-place team in the Pac-10 as a big game, but that's exactly what UCLA is facing when Arizona State comes to Pauley Pavilion Thursday night at 8 p.m.
That's because even though UCLA no longer controls its own destiny in the race for the Pac-10 title, but the Bruins are still holding out hope. That means the importance of every game is magnified because the Bruins can not afford to lose another game, stating with the game against Arizona State.
"We can’t go into this game assuming that we’re going to win," guard Malcolm Lee said. "There’s no relaxing in this game. We feel that anybody can beat anybody in this league so if we’re playing the No. 1 ranked team in the conference or the lowest team, we have to approach every game like it’s the same."
Coincidentally, UCLA will be playing the No. 1 and lowest ranked teams this weekend, so it will be a good test to see if the Bruins have the same sense of urgency in both games. They didn't Sunday night at California, where the Bruins (10-4 in conference) lost in overtime and fell two games behind conference-leading Arizona (12-2) with four conference games to go.
Lee called the loss a "reality check," and the reality is that UCLA can't win the Pac-10 title unless Arizona loses at least two of its final four games. Still, UCLA will enter Thursday night's game against Arizona State with hopes for a conference title still intact.
"We feel like the fat lady is not singing yet," Lee said. "Anything can happen."
UCLA winning the Pac-10 title is now a longshot. The Wildcats have won eight consecutive games and have moved to No. 10 in the national polls. The Wildcats would have to lose to USC (7-7), Oregon State (4-10) or Oregon (7-7) even if UCLA knocks off Arizona Saturday.
"Every loss hurts, but that was a critical loss," coach Ben Howland said of the Cal game. "We had a great opportunity."
The Bruins must regroup quickly if they are to keep alive their hopes of winning the title. Their sense of urgency has gone M.I.A. at times this season, especially against lesser teams, so Howland is imploring his team to put out its best effort Thursday even though Arizona State (10-16, 2-12) is last in the Pac-10.
"We have to win this game," Howland said. That’s the attitude and mentality we have to have. As far as I’m concerned, we go into every game like that...Every game in my heart is a must win. We have to win it and I’ve got to get that across to our team."
Guard Lazeric Jones said the message had been received.
"If you look past a team, that’s how you get beat," he said. "We did that in the beginning of the year and we took a bad loss. So I really feel that we have to focus on Arizona State. They have nothing to lose."
The game certainly has the feel of a trap game, with UCLA possibly thinking more about Saturday's game against Arizona, but the loss at California may very well ensure the Bruins don't get caught looking ahead.
"Especially after a loss like that where it was a winnable game, it was kind of a wake-up call," forward Reeves Nelson said. "So we’re just going to go back out and try to win every game we play."
Flaws for concern
The loss at California snapped a six-game UCLA win streak, and may have also exposed some flaws that he streak had kept hidden.
Chief among them is UCLA's difficulty in defending quick, penetrating guards coming off of screens. Early in the season, center Joshua Smith was getting in foul trouble trying to hedge against them. After Howland switched to a plug, the Bruins began winning, but California's Jorge Gutierrez showed in his 34-point performance that defending screens is still a weak spot for UCLA.
"We just have to read it better," Jones said. "We have to call out the screens, fight over them and hopefully our bigs can stay stay in front of the guards until we get back."
Defending screens wasn't the only issue. UCLA wasn't doing a good job in blocking out and the Bruins increased their conference-worst turnover total to 417.
"When you win, you tend to forget about the losing side of stuff," Lee said. "When you’re losing you just think about how to do better. When you’re winning you overlook the little stuff because you’re winning. When you lose, you look at all the stuff why we lost."
UCLA scored only 18 points in the first half against California, a slow start caused in part because the Golden Bears came out in a man-to-man defense.
"When we practiced for the Cal game the day before, we were not practicing any man stuff," Howland said. "We were considering that they were probably going to go zone because that’s what they had been doing. They had played zone primarily."
Nelson, who scored only one point in the first half, said the Golden Bears defense caught the team off guard.
"I just remember thinking to myself, wow, they’re playing man right now and all we had really been practicing was zone," he said. "So that had something to do with it I guess. But still, we’ve been running against man all year so we should have been able to execute more. It shouldn’t have been that big of deal."
But it was. UCLA shot 29 percent from the field in the first half and it's 18 points were the lowest halftime total for the Bruins this season.
"We made some execution errors in some of our stuff offensively," Howland said. "Little things that we should have down pat by now."
Jones slowed by injury
Jones, the junior point guard, is still dealing with soreness in his severely sprained left wrist and it's clearly altered his style of play.
Before the injury, Jones was averaging 8.8 shots per game before the injury, but has taken only 5.2 per game since.
"You don’t want to try to do too much when you have an injury like this," Jones said. "I’m still trying to get used to playing with it...You don’t want to still think you can do what you’ve done before, so I’m just working my way up to getting back to how I was."
He struggled with dribbling to the left in the games immediately following the Feb. 2 injury, but has since changed the cast and looks fine handling the ball. But Jones, a tough guard who likes to penetrate and is not afraid of contact, has gotten tentative about driving trough traffic.
"I’m just trying to get more comfortable with it and get more confident," he said. "But it’s still a work in progress."
Honeycutt looking to rebound
Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA's second-leading rebounder with 7.5 per game, had no rebounds against California, the first time in his career he'd posted a goose egg in the rebound column.
He said it was a combination of bad bounces and balls getting tipped away from him, but said he wasn't that concerned about it.
"It was one of those games where it just didn’t bounce my way," he said. "Especially you would think playing 43 minutes I would have gotten at least one."
Honeycutt added that what he's been doing this season has worked so far, so he's not going to change his approach because of one bad game.
"I’m going to do what I always do," he said. "I don’t know why I didn’t get a rebound, it just didn’t happen. I’m just going to with the same mindset. I always try to get as many rebounds as I can. I’m not going to try to do anything different."