— Steve Alford is doing something right at halftime.
UCLA flipped the switch again in Saturday’s 80-66 win over Utah, one that featured a 12-0 run to start the second half. The trend has been most apparent in their last five games — with the Bruins outshooting opponents 52.9 percent to 40.6 percent after the break — but holds across a larger sample size too.
In second halves of its Pac-12 schedule, UCLA is shooting 48.0 percent from the field while allowing 41.6 percent.
“That’s where we make our runs,” point guard Kyle Anderson said. “Coach told us about the old Lakers teams, the old Bulls teams — the third quarter in the NBA is where the best teams are normally the best teams.”
The Bruins need to limit the slow starts that have plagued them as of late, but they’ve at least proven themselves capable of overcoming early rough patches.
— Has the defense improved? UCLA is ranked sixth in conference in field goal percentage defense, up slightly from eighth a year ago, but that’s due more to the competition: the number is only down half a percent to 42.0.
But the team’s showing against the Utes was among its more impressive this season. It held versatile junior guard Delon Wright, the conference’s fifth-most efficient offensive player, to one field goal in the first half by making sure he couldn’t get into the lane with any ease.
“That’s what our team goal is on defense,” said sophomore guard Norman Powell. “Always be in help. Always stunting when someone comes of pick and roll, pick and pop. That’s the main principle of our defense. That’s picked up over the weeks.”
Alford said he was encouraged by the fact that the team did well defensively this week against teams with disparate offensive schemes.
“Colorado, with (Josh) Scott, you’ve got to really defend the post,” he said. ““With (Utah), you’ve got to really defend the dribble drive. They really like the ball screen. Colorado likes transition. We got a lot thrown at us these last two games.”
— Can UCLA catch Arizona? It won’t be surprising if the Bruins end up with a Bay Area split this coming week, but otherwise, the rest of the regular-season schedule isn’t all that intimidating.
The Wildcats looks much more uneven without Brandon Ashley (foot), who had been a valuable stretch forward that 42.2 percent of his 2-point jumpers — second on the team behind point guard T.J. McConnell. Trouble could lie ahead next week, when the team heads to Utah and Colorado. Visits from Cal and Stanford also loom after that.
For what it’s worth, kenpom.com projects UCLA’s most worrisome matchups as Cal (53 percent chance of victory) and Stanford (48 percent). The Bruins have at least a 75 percent chance at their four other games.
Arizona’s riskiest dates are Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City (69 percent) and March 8 in Eugene (65).
— Asked if it will be easier to keep his team focused on the road now that the Pac-12 lead is well within reach, Alford began on an odd splitting of hairs: he spent about 20 seconds explaining that his team has had trouble maintaining “concentration” at times, but not with “focus.”