UCLA knocking on NCAA's door

LOS ANGELES -- The emotional highs of a magical Saturday lasted well through the weekend in Westwood after UCLA authored a perfect final stanza for Pauley Pavilion, but the Bruins were slapped back to reality Monday morning when pollsters failed to get caught up in the moment and left UCLA out of the top 25 poll.

The Bruins' 71-49 beatdown over then-No. 10 Arizona figured to get UCLA (21-8, 12-4) back in the rankings after an absence of nearly two years, but UCLA remains on the outside looking in.

Not that it's a major oversight. UCLA is knocking on the door, listed at No. 28 in both major polls, but it's a reminder that despite the impressive performance Saturday, the Bruins have yet to impress upon the nation that they can play at an elite level on a consistent basis.

The regular season is about to come to a close and yet nobody can tell for sure whether the Bruins are the juggernaut that wiped out Arizona on Saturday or the pushover that scored only 18 points in the first half of an overtime loss at California just six days earlier.

UCLA heads to Washington this week for a crucial two-game swing to end the regular season.The Bruins have won 12 of their last 14 games and are tied for first place in the Pac-10, and yet the same question that has lingered since Day 1 of practice this season remains unanswered: How good is this UCLA team?

"We're getting better," coach Ben Howland said.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but anyone who has followed this team closely this season is well aware that his team has the ability to play like a team that could make a run as sleeper in the NCAA tournament or it could stumble through a few patches of poor play over the next two weeks, finish the season with three consecutive losses and sweat out Selection Sunday on the bubble for the NCAA tournament.

Consistency is not exactly the Bruins' strong point.

Against Kansas, BYU, St. Johns and Arizona, the Bruins gave 40-minute efforts. But in most other games, they have struggled through some not-so-shining stretches of play.

That 18-point half against California and a horrific start last week against Arizona State, when UCLA trailed the last-place Sun Devils 21-9 midway through the first half, are examples of those stretches that have occurred in just the past three games.

UCLA has blown double-digit leads and fallen behind by double digits with regularity this season, plagued by the inability to play a complete game.

"We've had trouble all year putting two halves together," forward Tyler Honeycutt said.

It's no surprise, given that the Bruins are still a very young team that is without seniors.

Anthony Stover and Joshua Smith are freshman who get most of the minutes at center and join junior college transfer Lazeric Jones as starters in their first season as Division I athletes. Sophomore forwards Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson are still in the midst of their development. Inconsistencies are to be expected.

But through all of the inconsistent play, UCLA has learned how to win. Early in the season, when it fell into big holes against Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth over Thanksgiving weekend in New York, UCLA climbed back out but could never get over the hump.

Contrast that to the game against Arizona State when the Bruins not only overcame a 12-point deficit, but went on to a blowout win, 71-53. They may have blown several double-digit leads this season, but the Bruins are 20-0 when they take a lead of 10 points or more at some point during the game.

Perhaps the biggest improvement has been on the defensive end. Howland used a zone defense much of last season and acknowledged it stunted the growth of players such as Honeycutt and Nelson. But after playing nearly a full season in Howland's punishing man-to-man system, the Bruins finally seem to be getting it.

In UCLA's first 15 games this season, nine opponents shot 44 percent or better against the Bruins. Five of them, in fact, shot better than 50 percent. In the 14 games since, nine opponents have failed to crack 40 percent.

UCLA has held eight of its past 14 opponents to fewer than 60 points after holding only three of its first 15 to that threshold.

"We're getting better defensively," said Howland, whose hard-nosed defenses led UCLA to three consecutive Final Four appearances in 2006, '07 and '08. "That's really exciting to me."

That defensive improvement comes with team chemistry, something this team has plenty of. The players genuinely like each other, and that is evident.

That has gone a long way toward the players buying in to Howland's system and understanding the identity of this team. It's a defense-first squad that needs to get its offense going through post players Smith, the dominant center, and Nelson, the bulldog power forward. They're a pair Howland called "the best low-post scoring team we've had since I've been here, including the Final Four teams."

But while growth often features spurts, it also comes with growing pains. For UCLA, that manifests in immaturity and inconsistency.

Saturday, for instance, when John Wooden's great grandson Tyler Trapani discussed the poignancy of making the last basket in Pauley Pavilion before its renovation, Honeycutt and Smith nearly ruined the moment by joking around.

Honeycutt told Smith he smelled. Smith took off his elbow sleeve and stuck it in Honeycutt's face. Honeycutt retaliated by trying to whack Smith in the groin. All the while, Trapani discussed one of the all-time great moments in Pauley Pavilion history.

It's that type of lack of focus, the inability to stay in the present, that has hampered the Bruins on the court. It has prevented them from being able to hold big leads and causes them to get into big holes. Immaturity, lack of focus and lack of consistent effort has planted the fear that UCLA could put up a stinker at any time.

Perhaps Saturday was a breakthrough game. It was easily UCLA's most complete game of the season as the Bruins maintained their focus throughout.

"We played a great first half and put it together and had a great second half," Honeycutt said. "So, I think we made a statement. It lets us know how good we can be."

The question is, can the Bruins be that good when they aren't playing in an emotional setting with an energized crowd? Can UCLA get that fired up to play when facing a team that doesn't have a ranking number in front of its name?

The pollsters this week didn't think so. The fear of UCLA's inconsistencies catching up with them still looms, and until the Bruins remove that fear, they won't get a number in front of their name, either.