UCLA prepares for Pac-12’s leading scorer

There was a time when leading the Pac-10 in scoring meant a little something.

Then again, there was a time when the Pac-10 was producing five NCAA Tournament teams.

Last year, Washington State’s Klay Thompson parlayed a conference-high 22.3 points per game into a first-round draft selection by the Golden State Warriors. The two players who followed him on the league scoring chart fared pretty well, too – Derrick Williams of Arizona went to Minnesota at No. 2 and USC’s Nikola Vucevic went No. 16 to Philadelphia.

Now, even with the league growing, adding two new teams in Utah and Colorado, the Pac-12’s best scorer barely registers on a national scale.

A direct result of the conference’s struggles, the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Oregon State’s Jared Cunningham, is hardly a household name, not even listed on most first- and second-round NBA mock drafts.

He’s quite familiar to UCLA, which travels to Corvallis for a 7:30 p.m. matchup with the Beavers tomorrow, and not just for his 17.6 points per game.

“I’ve been playing against Jared Cunningham for a long time – high school, AAU,” said sophomore guard Tyler Lamb, who will match up with him in UCLA’s man-to-man defense. “He’s really worked on his game and gotten better. I think he’s underrated nationally. He doesn’t just go out there and score, he helps his team win.”

And win the Beavers did early in the season, jumping off to a 10-2 start that included a five-point, overtime win over the same Texas team that beat UCLA by 10.

Since Pac-12 play began, though, Oregon State has regressed, opening conference play just 1-5.

“I don’t think their record is indicative,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. “They played Arizona to an overtime game last week. They’re right there. They’re much improved and they can beat anybody in our league.”

They have, in fact, as they defeated conference-leading Cal on Jan. 5 at Gill Coliseum 92-85.

But then there was the four-overtime, two-point loss at Stanford two days later and the eight-point overtime loss at Arizona that followed.

UCLA is not just studying recent film, though.

“It’s definitely (about) looking at the whole picture,” UCLA sophomore forward David Wear said. “They’ve proven they’re a good team. Even with some of their losses in conference, they’ve been close games. We know they’re a really good opponent.”

And that starts and ends with Cunningham.

Three of Cunningham four worst scoring nights this season came in losses including his seven-point performance in a 74-60 loss to Idaho in early December. Cunnigham shot 0-9 and 0-6 from 3-point range and added seven free throws in the big loss.

He also had 37 points in the win over the Longhorns three days after a 35-point outburst in a won over Hofstra.

“He’s had great games this year against high-major teams,” UCLA forward Travis Wear said. “Obviously he’s an elite player if he can be doing this against teams across the country. I definltey look at him as an elite player and an elite scorer.”