LOS ANGELES--UCLA got it's confidence-boosting victory, now it's time for a little morale booster.
Fresh off of Thursday's 75-49 drubbing of Utah, the Bruins face Colorado Saturday at the Sports Arena looking to make a statement that they can compete with the teams in the upper half of the conference standings and that they still intend to compete for the Pac-12 regular-season title.
So far UCLA has yet to show either of those things in conference play, but a victory over Colorado (14-6, 6-2 Pac-12), which is in a four-way tie for first place, would certainly fit the bill.
"We have a huge opportunity tomorrow against a very good team," coach Ben Howland said.
UCLA's last three victories certainly haven't put the Bruins back on the conference radar. Sure, UCLA (11-9, 4-4) won those games by an average margin of 20.6 points, but those games were against Arizona State (6-14), USC (5-16) and Utah (5-15), the only three teams in the conference without an overall winning record. Sandwiched in between those walkover wins was a disappointing road sweep at Oregon State (13-7, 3-5) and Oregon (15-5, 6-2)
The good news is that the Bruins are still only two games out of first place and the Pac-12 is still up for grabs. They have been in it to the end in three of their four losses and were only a point behind California at halftime in their other loss. The bad news is that UCLA has won only three games against Division I opponents with winning records this season.
They have Colorado and then a road trip to Washington (13-7, 6-2) and Washington State (11-9, 2-5) so now is the time to put up some resume-worthy victories.
"The Pac-12 is still wide open," center Joshua Smith said. "There’s not really a team that has defined themselves as the top team and a lot of the teams are winning home games. This is a big week for us to get above .500. Colorado is a pretty good team."
Colorado's emergence as a conference frontrunner is almost as surprising as UCLA's spot in the middle of the pack. The Buffaloes, in there first year in the conference, were picked 10th in the preseason poll, but have shown that last year's 24-win season and run to the NIT Final Four were no flukes.
They lead the conference in field goal percentage defense at 38.8 percent, are out-rebounding opponents by a conference-leading 6.4 rebounds per game and boast victories over Washington and Arizona this season.
"They’ve got good players, No. 1," Howland said. "They play real hard and execute their stuff. They’re a hard to play against. They’re doing a great job of playing man to man defense. And they’re tough. Coach [Tad] Boyle has done a great job."
Shooting guard Carlon Brown, a Utah transfer, leads the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game, but forwards Andre Roberson and Austin Dufault provide major matchup problems for the Bruins because of their ability to play inside and outside.
Roberson, a 6-7 sophomore, is leading the Pac-12 in rebounding with 11.1 per game--an average of three more than anyone else in the league--and Dufault, a 6-9 senior, is second on the team in scoring (11.1 points per game) and rebounding (4.9). He's also shooting 44.1 percent on three pointers.
"They’re both tough matchups," Howland said. "They’re hard because they can post up and play on the perimeter. They run a lot of sets for Roberson where they clear him out. He’ll drive you. They’re good players."
Freshman Spencer Dinwiddie is shooting 43.9 percent on three-point attempts and is the fourth Colorado player averaging in double figures scoring.
"We know that they are a very good team and I think if we just play 40 minutes of consistent high-pressure defense and we play smart offensively and make good decisions, I think that will help us a lot," forward David Wear said.
At this point it's probably too early to say that this is a must-win game for UCLA, but history shows that if UCLA wants to win the Pac-12 title, every game is a must-win for the rest of the season. UCLA's next conference loss would be its fifth and over the last 48 seasons, only Washington in 1984-85 and California in 2009-10 have won the regular-season title with five losses.
"Every win is important," Howland said. "We’re playing a lot of top teams coming up and this is the first of a number of them so every win is important."
So are more important than others.