It was nearly three months ago that UCLA seemed on its way to a second bad season in a row. The Bruins had just lost at home to Montana to fall to 3-4, a slow start that come on the heels of a 14-18 finish last year.
However, UCLA has turned things around since that unsightly loss to the Grizzles at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins have won 18 of their last 22 games and are 21-8 overall and 12-4 in the Pac-10, where they are tied with Arizona for first place with two games remaining.
"We've improved as the season has progressed, which is what you always want your team to do," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "The last month and a half, we've really started to improve, especially on the defensive end of the floor. When you have a young team like we have, it's a process. We have no seniors on the club and guys are learning but it's good to see the improvement we are making."
UCLA has improved so much that it now seems like a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins are 35th in the RPI despite being 6-7 against teams in the top 100.
UCLA has a chance to win the Pac-10, though Arizona has the advantage in the season's final week. The Wildcats finish with home games against Oregon State (10-17, 5-11) on Thursday night and Oregon (14-14, 7-9) on Saturday afternoon while UCLA goes on the road to play Washington (19-9, 10-6) on Thursday night and Washington State (18-10, 8-8) on Saturday afternoon. UCLA, however, comes into that stretch playing better basketball. The Bruins whipped Arizona 71-49 last Saturday at home.
"I thought it was our best game of the year," Howland said. "Arizona is a really a good team. We played very good defense for 40 minutes and did a good job of executing offensively."
Sophomore forward Reeves Nelson had a monster game with 27 points and 16 rebounds. Nelson is 76th in the nation in both effective field-goal percentage (59.4) and defensive rebounding percentage (22.9) and is averaging 14.0 points/9.0 rebounds/1.7 assists/31.8 minutes a game.
"He's been playing with a lot of intensity, especially later in the season," Howland said. "He is starting to understand just how good he can be."
With no seniors, the majority of possessions are being handled by two juniors (guards Malcolm Lee and Lazeric Jones), two sophomores (Nelson and forward Tyler Honeycutt) and freshman center Joshua Smith, who is second in the nation with a 19.7 offensive rebounding percentage. Smith is averaging 10.8/6.1/0.7/21.0 and Howland said he is also leading UCLA in plus-minus.
"When he's in the game, we play better," Howland said. "He's just a threat down low. He's scoring more, getting better with his post moves and getting better defensively because he's blocking more shots."
Despite its recent good play and the convincing victory over Arizona, UCLA remains unranked. In fact, Arizona is the only Pac-10 in The Associated Press' Top 25 this week.
"I'm not even thinking about it," Howland said of a ranking. "All I know is that I think our league is good. (Southern California) might be the hottest team in the league. They're really playing well. (California) is hot. Cal and SC, and obviously Washington, Arizona and ourselves all have a chance to get in the NCAA Tournament and do something once we get there."
Ryan Wants Even More from Wisconsin Offense
Wisconsin is leading the nation with a 124.0 adjusted offensive efficiency rating. Yet Badgers coach Bo Ryan is not satisfied.
When asked what he would like to see his team improve on the most as it looks toward the postseason, Ryan said it is the consistency of his team's shooting. Ryan apparently is a perfectionist as Wisconsin is 85th in the nation in two-point shooting (50.1 percent), 48th in three-point shooting (37.6) and first in free throw shooting (82.6).
"When you're in practice, you watch guys fill it up in shooting drills," Ryan said. "But shooting drills are repetitious in that you might take 50 shots in a row and all will be the same shot. The key with offensive play is getting to the point where it's so repetitious and ingrained that you still can be an effective scorer even if you're not getting 10 shots in the a row. In game situations, you don't get them from the same spot and with the same separation from the defense. You might get one shot every four minutes, every five minutes, every three minutes. You want your team to reach a point where offensive execution simply means you're always getting a good shot and doing things from muscle memory."
Even if Ryan thinks Wisconsin can be better, four of his players are among the top 100 in the nation in offensive rating. Senior wing Tim Jarmusz is fifth with a 133.1 mark, junior guard Jordan Taylor is 11th with a 130.4, senior forward Keaton Nankivil is 14th with a 130.0 and freshman guard Josh Gasser is 58th with a 122.8.
Wisconsin (22-6, 12-4) closes regular-season play in the Big Ten with road games at Indiana (12-17, 3-13) on Thursday night and Ohio State (28-2, 15-2) on Sunday afternoon. The Badgers are one of just two teams (along with Purdue) to beat top-ranked Ohio State this season. Considering Wisconsin is 13th in the RPI, if the Badgers could knock off the Buckeyes again at home, they might be looking at no worse than a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament unless they flop badly in the Big Ten Tournament.
Langley Stating His Case at Wyoming
Fred Langley has gone 2-4 so far in his opportunity to show that he should become the full-time coach at Wyoming. Langley was promoted from assistant coach last month when Heath Schroyer was fired after an 8-15 start.
The two wins have been against Texas Christian and Air Force, two of the Mountain West Conference's lesser teams. Wyoming was crushed 85-58 by San Diego State at home on Tuesday night and hosts Brigham Young on Saturday afternoon to conclude the regular season.
One interesting change Langley has made since taking over has been to make Wyoming a faster team. The Cowboys have averaged 74.5 possessions a game in the last six games after averaging 67.4 in 23 games under Schroyer. Langley feels it is imperative to take advantage of playing in the thin air of Laramie.
"It's really funny," Langley said. "Everybody says they are going to play up-tempo, but at the end of the day nobody really does. At 7,200 feet, I don't understand how everybody doesn't play that style here. Over the course of 40 minutes, it all adds up. You can't look at 20 minutes."
Unique Milestones for Battle and Saunders
Neither Penn State guard Talor Battle nor Duquesne forward Damian Saunders will wind up on any All-America teams this year. However, as the seniors wind down their careers they deserve a shout out for being two of the more unique players in major-college history.
Battle is just the third player to have 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 500 assists in a career, joining Danny Ferry (Duke, 1985-89) and Greivis Vasquez (Maryland, 2006-10). Battle has 20.4/4.4/3.1/37.6 averages this season . Few players are more of a focal point with their team than Battle, who is seventh in the nation in percentage of minutes played (94.1), 50th in percentage of shots (31.6) and 91st in percentage of possessions (28.5).
Saunders is the first Division I player to have 250 assists, steals and blocked shots in a career. He has stuffed the stat sheet this season with averages of 12.6/7.7/2.6/33.8 and is 42nd in the nation in block percentage (8.8) and 68th in steal percentage (3.7).
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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