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UCLA and USC appear to be moving in opposite directions

It was pushing midnight as UCLA players trudged through the rain into their dated but quaint riverside hotel. The Bruins had endured something of a slog after making the roughly hourlong drive from Corvallis following a second consecutive defeat.

Across town, the mood was more upbeat for their USC counterparts. The Trojans could fully enjoy the comforts of their modern boutique hotel complete with cardinal and gold blown glass light fixtures in the lobby after beating Oregon to notch a third consecutive victory.

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It felt like two teams passing in the night, separated by less than three miles but a world apart in terms of the trajectory of their seasons.

USC, which had opened the season amid high expectations and a cloud of FBI suspicion for its alleged involvement in the college basketball corruption scandal, was enjoying a moment in the sun, which peeked through the clouds Friday afternoon as the team bus pulled away for Corvallis.

UCLA, which had opened the season with high hopes despite an international shoplifting incident that deprived the team of three freshmen, was shrouded in uncertainty. The Bruins, 13-6 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-12 Conference, have already lost more games before the midpoint of conference play than they did all of last season.

Any internal strain was not visible on the face of UCLA coach Steve Alford, who remained cheery during his remarks after the Bruins' 69-63 loss to Oregon State on Thursday and tenderly tapped a reporter on the arm as he walked away.

"A lot of guys are going through this for the first time," Alford said, alluding to playing three freshmen and two others who redshirted last season, "so we've just got to continue to be positive, continue to be upbeat, continue to encourage them and show them some things on film that they've just got to work on and hopefully we just keep getting better."

Optimism could come more naturally for USC (14-6, 5-2), which resides only half a game behind first-place Stanford and Arizona in the Pac-12 standings. The Trojans would have first place all to themselves had they not lost to the Cardinal on a desperation heave.

"We're a 50-footer at the buzzer from being 6-0 in our last six" games, USC coach Andy Enfield said Friday when asked about his team's recent fortunes.

The Trojans probably could put themselves safely back into most NCAA tournament projections with another victory Saturday against Oregon State at Gill Coliseum. They had been listed among ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's "First Four Out" before snapping a 14-game losing streak against Oregon with a 75-70 triumph Thursday.

Enfield noted that his team was playing well offensively and defensively, sharing the ball while limiting turnovers and giving up few big runs with the exception of Stanford's comeback from a 15-point deficit in the second half.

"That's usually a recipe for having a chance to win," Enfield said.

USC has also been able to exhale a bit after persevering through the injuries and ineligibility of sophomore guard De'Anthony Melton that kept as many as four players out of some games earlier this season. The injured players have returned, but Melton will remain out for the rest of the season as the school continues to assess his connection to the bribery scandal that led to assistant coach Tony Bland being placed on indefinite leave.

"The other three guys are back," Enfield said, "and I think it's helped our team cohesiveness and they're playing well together."

Introductions sometime seem in order for UCLA considering its disjointed offense that can rely on one-on-one moves and three-pointers. The Bruins have dropped back-to-back games for the second time this season after shooting 37.1% against Colorado and 37.9% against Oregon State.

"I don't think there's a trend," Alford said. "We've had two bad shooting games in a row, but I think if you're honest about it, the first 15 games of the season we've shot the ball a lot better than what I thought we'd shoot it."

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UCLA probably has some making up to do to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for a second time in the last three seasons. The Bruins were listed among Lunardi's "Last Four In" prior to giving up 18 offensive rebounds and being outscored 10-3 in the final minutes of their loss to Oregon State.

There will be an opportunity to improve their status during an upcoming stretch that includes games against Stanford, USC and Arizona, which are all perched above UCLA in the Pac-12 standings. Before that, the Bruins need to beat an equally distressed Oregon team Saturday at Matthew Knight Arena, the Ducks having gone from the Final Four in 2017 to a sub-.500 record in conference play.

Shortly before he boarded the team bus to Eugene late Thursday night, UCLA center Thomas Welsh was formulating a recovery plan.

"Sticking together, working hard," Welsh said. "That's all you can really do in a situation like this."

UCLA TONIGHT

AT OREGON

When: 7:15.

Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore.

On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 1150.

Update: It could take on the feel of an elimination game for teams that have fallen from the ranks of the Pac-12 Conference's elite in just one year. UCLA has already lost more games than it did all of last season. Oregon (12-7, 2-4) has lost three of its last four games, including its first home setback against USC since 2009. The Ducks held a two-point lead against the Trojans on Thursday before failing to score on six of their final seven possessions. The Bruins were equally bad in the final minutes of a 69-63 loss to Oregon State.hich they were outscored 10-3 to end the game. "We've just got to learn now how to close out halves," Alford said, "and when you're playing a lot of new guys that's not easy."

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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