LOS ANGELES -- When UCLA faces Washington on Thursday in Seattle, the Bruins will face a three-guard starting lineup that is quick, athletic and difficult to defend.
It's exactly the type of team that might call for the zone defense UCLA unveiled for a brief period this season, but coach Ben Howland said that the team is no longer practicing the zone and hopes to use a man-to-man for the remainder of the season.
"We could bring it back in certain situations but we’ve really been focusing on our man," Howland said. "I think we’ve improved with our man defense as the year has progressed."
The Bruins (12-9, 5-4 Pac-12) have, indeed, improved in the man defense. Since ditching the zone after winning against Arizona State, the Bruins have held three of five opponents under 40 percent shooting. Before the zone, three of UCLA's first seven opponents shot better than 50 percent.
The Bruins had some success with a 2-3 zone against Penn, Richmond and in a loss at Stanford, but Howland has used it sparingly since and it's been pretty much nonexistent the past two weeks.
"Our man has picked up recently," forward Travis Wear said. "I think our team is just really confident in our man defense right now. We’re forcing teams to take bad shots and for the most part consistently holding them to lower field goal percentages, but right now I think we’re just confident in our man and fell like we don’t have to work on our zone."
Whatever defense the Bruins play against Washington, they'll need to play it well. The Huskies (14-7, 7-2) have three of the top seven leading scorers in the Pac-12 in Tony Wroten (17.1 points per game), Terrence Ross (15.1) and C.J. Wilcox (14.8). They are second in the conference in scoring at 76.7 points per game.
Not only that but Washington is a notoriously tough place to play, especially for UCLA, which hasn't won at Alaska Airlines Arena since 2004.
"They have a good crowd," guard Jerime Anderson said. "They’re right on top of you. It’s not too big of an arena, but it’s big enough to where they fill it and it gets really loud. And they play inspired there."
UCLA will also be inspired. The Bruins are 0-6 against Division I teams outside of Southern California, with their only road win coming at USC. Still, they are only two games out of first place in a tight Pac-12 race, but would fall pretty much out of contention with even one loss on this two-game trip to Washington and Washington State.
"It’s a make or break for this team this year," center Anthony Stover said of the upcoming road trip. "Every day I’ll talk to my teammates and we say we’re still right here and in the middle of the pack and we can still break out. We just have to keep it moving on the wins that we have and try to get some on the road. Those are really important."
Another key Thursday will be to keep Washington off the glass. The Huskies lead the conference in rebounding with 40.3 per game -- six more than UCLA averages. They also know what to do with it when they rebound, often getting out quickly in transition for easy baskets.
"Our big keys on Thursday will be transition defense," Howland said. "They are very good in transition. And not allowing second shots. They are a very good offensive team that really goes after the ball and gets a lot of second shots."
Center Joshua Smith had a career-high 16 rebounds last year at Washington, so another game like that would come in handy. Smith, a native of Kent, Wash., has extra motivation playing against the Huskies because of his local ties.
The loud crowds there don't let him off easy, but he said it doesn't bother him. His family is coming to the game and has asked for 25 tickets, so he'll have some support.
"It was fun last time," he said. "But it would have been better if we got a win so we're going up there to try and get the win."