Ben Howland readily admitted that UCLA’s defense was “horrible” five, six weeks ago, but is relatively pleased with how well its progressed since. (Freshman Jordan Adams: “He’s said worse.”) Still, the Bruins rank 11th in the conference in field goal percentage defense and have allowed 80.6 points in their past three games.
Right now, they’re still a team that relies on firepower — something both Howland and his players said will have to change as they enter conference play against Cal at 8 p.m. Thursday.
“That’s not really our mindset right now to go and outscore people,” point guard Larry Drew II said. “That saying: offense wins games, defense wins championships. We’re not going to be able to just outscore everybody that we play. At some point, we’re going to have to stop people from scoring as well. It’s definitely something we’re aware of.”
What’s at stake: UCLA is on a roll right now, having won five straight and six of its last seven. The caveat is the streak’s precarious foundation, with wins over Texas and then-No. 7 Missouri coming by a total margin of five points. Both teams also squandered 8- and 9-point leads down the stretch to assist the Bruins’ comebacks.
Another win will help bolster the young squad’s growing confidence, and perhaps keep New Pauley Pavilion packed. The win over Missouri felt like UCLA’s first notable instance of home-court advantage.
“We just want to win,” Howland said. “It’s about winning margin. I’m not looking at the stats and saying we have to hold them under 60.”
At a glance: UCLA’s offensive cohesion has undoubtedly improved: it scored 80 points in four straight for the first time since 2001, and currently leads the conference with 80.9 points per game. Cal has struggled for notable wins, falling short against UNLV and Creighton before a faceplant at home against Harvard.
The Bears no longer has lockdown defender Jorge Gutierrez, and their stats on that end of the court now range from middling to poor. Of note, the Bears simply don’t force very many turnovers, and rank second-to-last in the conference in turnover margin (-2.5). No one on the roster should be able to stop Shabazz Muhammad.
Cal, which does have two very good guards in Justin Cobbs and conference-leading scorer Allen Crabbe, could try and keep the Bruins from playing at the pace they’ve grown accustomed to in the past two weeks.
“They’re going to play a very controlled pace in the halfcourt, make us be more patient with our offense,” Howland said. “We’re always going to be on defense.”
Players to watch: Drew has focused on his defensive effort in recent games, and said Missouri point guard Phil Pressey was easily his most difficult test of the year. (Including past years, the toughest would be John Wall. “He literally would catch the outlet at halfcourt and take two dribbles and be at the rim,” Drew said.) The Tigers’ junior flirted with an NCAA record as he dropped 19 dimes to go with his 19 points.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t realize how good of a game he was having until halftime,” Drew said. “I was like, ‘What?’ … I thought I was doing a pretty decent job on him. As good a job as anybody could do given the type of player that he is. That’s why I was so surprised coming into halftime (and hearing his stats).”
Next up is Cal point guard Justin Cobbs, who leads his team in field goal percentage (.531) by a wide margin. He and Crabbe combine for 37.3 of the Bears’ 71.5 points per game. Limit Cobbs’ 16.4 average, and Crabbe likely won’t be able to do enough to carry the Bears on his own.
The Wears might be able to put in another solid performance after combining for 38 points against Missouri. Cal forwards Richard Solomon and David Kravish are wiry, but don’t defend as well farther away from the basket.
Injury notes: Tony Parker was troubled by back spasms again on Wednesday, a problem that last bothered him during UCLA’s November trip to Brooklyn. Guard Norman Powell sprained his left ankle against Missouri, but has practiced through it this week. Cal backup guards Brandon Smith (concussion) and Ricky Kreklow (foot) are both questionable for Thursday. The two combine to average 9 points per game.