The College Basketball Notebook

January 27, 2011 5:43 AM

UCLA Looks To Keep Turnaround Going

ReevesNelson.jpgUCLA is quietly starting to turn its season around, having won four in a row as they get set for tonight's key Pac-10 game against Arizona (9, ESPN). On January 9, they had dropped two straight conference games, falling to 9-6 overall and 1-2 in the league. The critics were starting to call for Ben Howland to either turn this around now or find other employment. After three straight Final Four appearances from 2006-08, Howland had fallen on hard times and seemed poised to be the latest victim of those who believe getting rid of a coach with a proven record of success will magically solve short-term problems.

The Bruins haven't lost since the 9th, have raised their record to 13-6 and 5-2, and are back in the NCAA Tournament discussion. This team's strength is rebounding. Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt lead up a frontline that generally beats its opponent to the glass. The team's problem is turnovers, although it's not necessarily fault of the backcourt. Honeycutt has some issues with taking care of the ball, so the turnover problems can cancel out a rebounding edge.

Howland has gotten stepped up play from the backcourt in this recent win streak, as both Lazeric Jones and Malcolm Thomas have had good games. We should also point out that they've benefited from the schedule as well--beating Oregon State, Oregon, Cal and Stanford isn't going to quiet the fan base. But the way UCLA had been playing early in the season suggested they couldn't have won four consecutive games against anybody.

The core four is what will determine if they continue to win games like this. Lee and Jones in the backcourt, coupled with Honeycutt and Reeves at forward give UCLA enough to beat anybody in the Pac-10 besides Washington, so long as this quartet is functioning in rhythm. Whether the Bruins can gain separation from the rest of this conference's lower nine, below the Huskies, depends on how well a fifth wheel comes around in the starting lineup. Howland has given 7'0" freshman Joshua Smith a shot at filling the void and as a center he is an ideal positional fit. So far he's had problems with turnovers, foul trouble and isn't much of a scorer. The latter can be lived with, but Smith has to take care of the other two issues and allow his rebounding to help the team.

After tonight's game with Arizona, one that's basically about becoming the primary challenger to Washington, UCLA goes to woeful Arizona State. Beyond the Huskies at the top of the Pac-10 and the Sun Devils at the bottom, it's pretty tough to differentiate any of these teams on a night-to-night basis. Success is going to be about consistency. And if UCLA can continue to get the consistency they've shown these last 2 ½ weeks, a game with St. John's on February 5, the Saturday prior to the Super Bowl, sets up as an unusually big non-conference game between two teams on the NCAA bubble.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary on the NFL playoffs and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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