UCLA 97, Missouri 94 (OT): Have the Bruins arrived?

Yes, if your expectations aren’t a Final Four. In just one month since the face-plant against Cal Poly, UCLA has staged a slow, remarkable turnaround that culminated with the upset of the No. 7 Tigers — easily the Bruins’ biggest win of the season. (Missouri was technically a slight underdog in Vegas, but come on.)

They’ll pop back into the AP poll next week, after a win that cemented the key to saving Ben Howland’s job: letting go. This team might get incrementally better on defense, but it just doesn’t have the raw ability to ever play man the way Howland likes. But as Shabazz Muhammad said earlier this season, this team needs to up its pace and run fewer set plays. Let its freshmen freestyle on the run and hope they can outscore the other team on most nights.

That plan won’t result in 58.6 percent second-half shooting every night — how often are the Wears going to combine for 38 points? — but the Pac-12 only has one team (Arizona) that’s clearly better than the Tigers.

The high-end for this team could look something like last year’s Missouri squad, one that earned a No. 2 seed before being knocked out in the first round.

“This was a huge win for us especially going into conference play,” Travis Wear said. “To be going in with this type of momentum is awesome.”

Key Players: Shabazz Muhammad, for showing off a killer instinct in drilling two crucial 3-pointers in overtime. The second one, which gave the Bruins a 95-93 lead, was a particularly impressive offensive set: UCLA was patient as it swung the ball around the perimeter, with Kyle Anderson smartly passing up an OK 3-point look before giving the ball to Larry Drew for the eventual assist. Continue reading

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UCLA vs. Missouri: What to Watch

For some inexplicable reason, UCLA opened as a 2.5-point favorite over No. 7 Missouri, whose only loss came against No. 4 Louisville. Part of that might have to do with the 7 p.m. game being the Tigers first true road game this year, but the Bruins haven’t been close to showing they’re a top-10 caliber team.

What’s at stake: After faltering against San Diego State, UCLA has one last chance to bolster its postseason resume as it prepares to enter Pac-12 play on Jan. 3. A five-game winning streak would likely vault them back into the rankings as well, and keep Ben Howland’s job a little safer.

“It would definitely be a huge win for our current season,” said point guard Larry Drew II. “At this point, I think a win over anybody, everybody at this point would be good.”

Added freshman Kyle Anderson: “It’s a real big test for us. Missouri’s a great team. They’re a top-10 team. We’ve gotten better than the last time we played a top-25 team. We wanna see where we stand.”

At a glance: It’s really hard to see how the Bruins will defend a team as athletic as Missouri, so they’ll likely have to score at least 80 points to win. Ken Pomeroy still has UCLA as the 12th most efficient offensive team in the country, and the freshman trio of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams have started to gel more in recent games. Continue reading

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Holiday Bowl: Baylor 49, UCLA 26

Well, that was certainly an ugly game.

What went wrong: Just about everything, but the most glaring was the porous offensive line. Jake Brendel and Torian White both left the game in the first half with high ankle sprains, which forced Brett Downey into his first action in months. Simon Goines also played sparingly, still bugged by a bad right knee. He’ll undergo surgery in the next week or so.

“I think Baylor recognized that we were down, not a man, but two men, and they pinned their ears back and came at us,” head coach Jim Mora said. “It was working. When it’s working and going effectively, you stay with it. We’ve got to build depth at that position and that’s one of our goals.”

Brett Hundley set a UCLA bowl appearance record with 50 pass attempts, which really underscores how one-dimensional the Bruins’ offense looked at Qualcomm Stadium. His previous high was 47 in the 43-17 loss to Cal. In nine wins this season, Hundley averaged 30 attempts. Continue reading

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