UCLA, which comes to Haas Pavilion to take on the Bears Saturday night, tip at 5:00 pm, is starting to look very dangerous.
Not only have the Bruins (14-9, 5-4 Pac-12) won three straight and six of eight, but they showed Thursday night they could beat a quality opponent away from Pauley Pavilion. The 69-67 victory over Stanford was only the second for the Bruins on the road. And they were able to sleep in their own beds for the first one, it was against crosstown rival USC. The Trojans, though a game and competitive bunch, are just 1-9 in league play.
Beating Stanford in Palo Alto is another story. The Bruins did give back most of a 22-point second half lead, but had built enough scoreboard equity to hang on to the victory. The Cardinal had been 10-1 at home.
The latest win, as well as the resurgence in general, was led by guard Norman Powell, who had 20 points and eight rebounds.
“I think Norman Powell is starting to play like a senior with a sense of urgency,” said Colorado coach Tad Boyle on the coaches' conference call this week. Powell had 23 points in the Bruins' upset of Utah and followed that 23 in a win over Boyles' Buffaloes to earn conference Player of the Week honors.
Bruins coach Steve Alford said Powell, who has scored at least 20 in the last four games, has adopted a more aggressive offensive style, better suited to his skill set. He sees that as a sign of growing up.
“If you look at his career he has just done a tremendous job of improving and getting better each year. And that's what you like to see in young men when they come to the program as a freshman,” said Alford on the coaches' conference call.
“He's worked awfully hard and he had a great summer, a really, really good summer and I think you've seen him mature as the season goes along here. We had a really tough stretch in December (three straight losses and then two in January to start conference play).
"Being the leader and one of the captains of our team and the only senior, there was a lot of pressure put on him. And I think he's just matured nicely throughout the season. He's playing to his strengths. And that's driving the ball and attacking the rim, and that's setting up his jump shot. I think early on he might have been settling for jump shots, and then driving. He's always been one of the best drivers in our league, and his drive is now setting up his jump shot.”
While not quite as young as USC, the Bruins have an inexperienced team. Four of last year's starters left, three were first round NBA draft choices. Then academic and eligibility issues derailed some newcomers. In looking back on the early season losing streak, Alford said the difficulty of the schedule along with the team's youth created a something of a perfect storm.
“The December deal was playing three really good teams away from home." (Two, actually Kentucky and Alabama. The Gonzaga loss was at Pauley).
“We can't control the conference schedule and we wound up getting a tough break in that we played three (sic) straight really good teams on the road and then we started the conference season on the road in two tough places to play, Colorado and Utah. So I think one we got some tough breaks. … We've only got two upperclassmen. So going through it for the first time… I think that stretch had a lot to do with newness.
“And then we started playing pretty well. We got a win against Stanford at home, a win against Cal at home and we go on the road and win at USC, so we were playing well. Then (junior center) Tony (Parker) got hurt. Our other upperclassman didn't make the trip to the Oregon schools (both UCLA losses) so that's something new that was thrown at us.
“So we hopefully we get into February here we can stay healthy and get some consistency from that point. When you are young and inexperienced and then you throw in all these other things that makes it really difficult. That's why I have really appreciated Norm and his leadership. He's been really positive to the young guys. And he's been a tremendous example at practice to the young guys.”
Parker, who was sidelined two games with back spasms, has been back for three games and has made a difference.
“Now they have Parker back, he's a big part of what they're doing,” Boyle said. “When he was out I think that really hurt them. I think it is critical for UCLA that they stay healthy because their depth is not what they want it to be, and not what it needs to be. On any given night, they are a talented group. They've got good players and they're well-prepared. It think they'll be a factor down the stretch, no doubt.”
Guard Isaac Hamilton, a newcomer to UCLA after transferring from UTEP, had struggled away from Pauley until breaking out with 18 points, shooting 50 per cent (6-for-12) from the floor at Stanford. He had been 9-for-45 (20 percent) on the road in conference games coming in.
“Isaac Hamilton is a completely different player than he was even two weeks ago,” TV analyst and former UCLA center Bill Walton said on the ESPN telecast of the Stanford game. “He's gotten himself into fantastic condition. He shut down Delon Wright of Utah and tonight he's on Chasson Randle (who scored 13, 7.8 below his average). … And he's knocking down jumpers.”
So despite their second half fade against Stanford, UCLA looks ready to roll.
“We're healthy. Hopefully we're gaining some momentum,” Alford said after the Stanford win. “We're getting some confidence.”
- UCLA leads the all-time series with Cal, 136-101 and will be trying to sweep the Bears for a second straight year.
- An indication of how thin the UCLA roster is: The Bruins got zero points from the bench Thursday night.
- Freshman forward Kevon Loney, who lit up Stanford for 27 points in the first meeting (an 86-81 UCLA win in double overtime), was held to five on Thursday. He had been in double figures in scoring in six of his previous seven games, and is the nation's only freshman averaging a double-double (12.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg). He leads all freshmen in the country with 11 double-doubles in 23 games (second-highest total in the Pac-12).
- Bryce Alford, Steve's son the starting point guard who had been 11th in the country and second in the conference in free-throw percentage (89.5), was just 1-for-3 against Stanford, and his miss in the final seconds gave Stanford a chance to tie with a two-point basket. Randle's attempt at the buzzer missed.
- UCLA leads the Pac-12 in rebounds per game (39.7) and offensive rebounds per game (13.7). The Bruins have recorded the third-best rebound margin (+4.3) of any Pac-12 program.