1. UCLA coach Ben Howland was in a great mood Thursday when talking with us on our ESPNU college basketball podcast. His demeanor has made a complete 180 since the Bruins looked lost and leaderless in Brooklyn last month. The Bruins have won four in a row since losing to San Diego State in Anaheim. Some of Howland's optimism stems from a commitment to defense by point guard Larry Drew II -- on top of his 8.5 assist to 1.6 turnover ratio -- as well as the conditioning improvement of Shabazz Muhammad. He also said Kyle Anderson has become the leader who he recruited. The Bruins host Missouri on Friday night at 10 p.m. (ESPN2) and win or lose you can tell Howland has a much better grasp on the potential of this team in the Pac-12. He's brimming with confidence that this team can be a factor.
2. Butler's nonconference schedule was built to enhance the Horizon League schedule this season. But then the Bulldogs bolted a year early to the A-10. Butler coach Brad Stevens didn't seem to think the Bulldogs would change the philosophy going forward when asked during our podcast Thursday. He said the players come to Butler to play in high-level games, a major exempted tournament and big-time neutral-site games. Butler could afford to dial back on one or two of the games, but I don't get the sense Butler will shrink from playing as many elite games as possible. Butler was in the Maui Invitational (Marquette, North Carolina, Illinois), played at Xavier in a nonconference game, at Northwestern, Indiana in Indianapolis, is at Vanderbilt on Saturday (8 p.m. ESPNU) and still plays host to Gonzaga in January.
3. Creighton starts the Missouri Valley Conference season this weekend by hosting Evansville, a game followed next week with a showdown at Illinois State before a home game with Indiana State. This should be a good test for the polls. Creighton will be the target in every game in the conference. If the Bluejays were to lose at their toughest competitor in Illinois State then it shouldn't be as big a hit. Teams in other conferences are judged differently when they lose a road game to another tough team in the league, even if they're unranked. Creighton is allowed to lose at Illinois State or Wichita State or Indiana State and still shouldn't be judged too harshly. Teams outside the power six are always put on a pedestal that they cannot drop a road game and that is simply an unfair standard.