UCLA hopes to be ready for first-place Cal

LOS ANGELES -- If Anthony Stover should have any bad feelings about UCLA's game Saturday against California, coach Ben Howland would like his sophomore center to please speak up.

Stover said earlier this week that his team didn't "feel there" when the Bruins lost, 85-69, Dec. 31 at Cal and that "none of us came ready to play that game."

Howland on Friday said Stover should do something about it should he have that feeling before UCLA's game against the Golden Bears at 1 p.m. at the Sports Arena.

"I’m embarrassed for him if he knew we weren’t ready in his mind and didn’t do anything about it," Howland said.

The results of that game make you wonder if it would have done any good for Stover to say anything. It was easily the worst performance in Pac-12 play by the Bruins this season. The 16-point margin was UCLA's only conference loss by double digits and the game wasn't even as close as the final score indicated.

Cal led by as many as 24 points with less than five minutes to play, and UCLA's defense offered little resistance in letting Cal shoot 65.4 percent from the field. It was one of the defensive low points of the season for the Bruins, who have not lost another conference game by more than seven points and have held second-half leads in every conference game since.

So, two days after avenging their closest conference loss with a victory Thursday over Stanford, the Bruins (14-10, 7-5) will try to make amends for their biggest conference blowout, though it will not be easy. California (19-6, 9-3) is in a first-place tie in the Pac-12 and is well-rested after an easy 75-49 thumping of USC on Thursday.

"They played really well and we played very poorly, especially defensively," Howland said. "You have to give them credit though. They’re 19-6, they’re an NCAA tournament team, they’re in first place in our conference and they had a lot to do with us not looking great defensively and really took it to us."

The Bruins have shored things up a bit on defense since then. They are communicating better and making better switches and defensive rotations on the help side. They are making up for a lack of quickness with strong team defense and have held six of 10 opponents to under 40 percent shooting since that loss at Cal.

"We got a lot better from that point forward," Howland said. "We’re doing a better job of getting in our stance. That game we really allowed a lot of separation which allowed them to get a lot of easy shots and easy reads. We’ve done a better job of tightening things up."

Something else that is tightening up is the Pac-12 title race. Cal and Washington are tied at 9-3 with Arizona, Colorado and Oregon a game back at 8-4 and UCLA two games behind at 7-5 with six conference games remaining.

And there seems to be no rhyme or reason to who wins which games. Cal has lost to Oregon State and Washington State, a pair of teams that are 5-7 in conference play. Washington can't seems to beat the top teams, with losses to Cal, Colorado and Oregon.

"I think what’s really evident is that anybody can beat anybody on a given night," Howland said. "Anybody in this league is capable of beating anybody. I think that’s played itself out pretty well."

UCLA's problem had been an inability to close out close games. The Bruins lost by one at Stanford, by three at Oregon State, by seven at Oregon and by two at Washington. A three-point victory last week at Washington State and a late second-half surge Thursday in a 72-61 victory over Stanford showed that the Bruins may have reversed that trend.

"We’re winning some close games the last couple of games, and it’s always good to be on the right side of a close game so that was positive for us," Howland said.

If the Bruins can make a run in the last third of conference play, they'll need to keep Joshua Smith out of foul trouble. After dominating on the trip to Washington, Smith was a limited factor Thursday against Stanford because he picked up two early fouls and then a third late in the first half. His fourth foul came about six minutes into the second half and all of them were offensive fouls -- illegal screens or charges.

Smith appeared to be frustrated by Stanford's physical play and tried to bully back.

"That's how they're going to play him," Howland said. "He takes a lot of abuse, but when he slows down, he is really, really dominant. When he gets sped up and he’s trying to go to fast is when he gets in trouble. He just needs to slow down."

For now, the Bruins need to slow down Cal. The Golden Bears have won seven of their last nine games. They have not swept the season series from UCLA since 1992-93 and are looking to sweep USC and UCLA in the same season for the first time since 1958-59.

Allen Crabbe (15.9 points per game), Jorge Guttierez (14.1), Justin Cobbs (12.7) and Harper Kamp (10.0) lead a balanced offensive attack that leads the conference with 48.3 percent shooting from the field.

"All those guys are capable of scoring 15 plus points a game on a given night," Howland said. "They’re a very, very good team. Cal is a team that can definitely go into the NCAA tournament this year and make a nice run."

For now, the Bruins must work on making their own run. They are currently in sixth place in the Pac-12 standings, but reaching the top is certainly not out of the question. Perhaps of more importance is passing Oregon, Arizona and Colorado to get into the top four of the standings by the time the Pac-12 tournament begins. The top four teams receive a first-round bye in that tournament. Everyone else would have to win four games in four days to secure the tournament title and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

"We’re not really focused on first place, second place, the race or whatever," guard Jerime Anderson said. "We just need to start focusing on every game, by itself and try to win that game and the record and everything else will take care of itself. We’ve got to play the game that’s at hand. That’s something that’s in the future and it’s not something that we’re worried about. We’re worried about the present right now."

Well, that and the feeling Stover has about the team before tipoff Saturday against Cal.