Bruins still No. 1, but they have issues

Times Staff Writer

UCLA is 9-0 and running out of time.

That might sound a bit harsh for the No. 1 team in the country.

But somewhere, and sometime soon, there will be a team that can capitalize on the Bruins' 59.8% free-throw shooting and 2.5 rebounding margin if UCLA doesn't shore up those problems.

"We have a lot of promise," guard Arron Afflalo said. "We still have a few things we need to improve on before Pac-10 play. That's going to be the most strenuous and important part of our season.

"The obvious things are going to be our rebounding margin and free throws. Those are two aspects of the game that can hurt you down the stretch if you're not improving on that part of the game."

Chances are Sam Houston State isn't the team that will send the Bruins tumbling from atop the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls. The Bearkats (6-4) have lost to UC Irvine by eight in overtime, Oklahoma State by 19 and Texas Tech by 15.

But just ahead for the Bruins lies 11-1 Michigan on Saturday, and the beginning of Pacific 10 Conference play.

Washington State, the Bruins' opponent Dec. 28, toppled Gonzaga, which had beaten North Carolina and Texas and would beat Washington by 20.

Next comes No. 17 Washington, on Dec. 31, with a lineup that includes 7-foot freshman Spencer Hawes.

"The Pac-10 is really good right now," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. "We're No. 1 in the polls, and [the league] is No. 2 in the RPI," a ratings system that measures the strength of teams and conferences.

Howland contends some of the Bruins' rebounding margins are "a little skewed."

Against Oakland, UCLA was outrebounded by five, but Howland pointed out UCLA missed eight free throws and Oakland missed two.

"Typically, they're going to get the rebound," he said.

That doesn't mean he's unconcerned about free-throw shooting. Starting center Lorenzo Mata is worst of all, making nine of 33, or 27%.

Josh Shipp, shooting 68% this season, made only three of seven against Oakland.

"Free-throw shooting is time, being able to spend a lot of time at it, and good repetition," Howland said. "I was surprised Josh missed free throws the other night. He shot well in practice. Lorenzo is getting better and better."

Sam Houston State shouldn't provide a big challenge in theory, but there's one quirk.

"They run a Princeton offense," Howland said.

That should be enough to make UCLA fans twitch, if they recall the 1996 NCAA tournament. (Princeton, seeded No. 13, upset the defending national champion Bruins, 43-41.) The offense emphasizes movement and options.

"It's a hard match-up for our big guys," Howland said.

Still, UCLA is the No. 1 team in the nation, at least for a while.

"I feel there are 15 teams very, very close to one another," Howland said. "It's all based on how you play that day."


vs. Sam Houston State, 7:30, Prime

Site -- Pauley Pavilion.

Radio -- 1150.

Records -- UCLA 9-0, Oakland 6-4.

Update -- The Bruins are finishing the soft part of their schedule. The Bearkats are led by Ryan Bright, who averages 16 points and 7.8 rebounds.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday December 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction UCLA basketball: In Tuesday's Sports section, a box about a game between the UCLA Bruins and the Bearkats of Sam Houston State said Oakland's record was 6-4. It should have said Sam Houston's record was 6-4.
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