Time is running out on UCLA’s nonconference schedule, with today’s game against Michigan the final opportunity for the Bruins to fine-tune before Pacific 10 Conference play begins Thursday.
And if you ask Coach Ben Howland or any of the Bruins players, there is still plenty of fine-tuning to do.
Never mind that UCLA is 10-0 and has already defeated teams such as Kentucky, Georgia Tech and No. 13 Texas A&M.;
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Howland said after his team’s last game, a 75-61 victory over Sam Houston State.
Not even the No. 1 ranking in the nation is enough.
“I don’t even know what it means to be No. 1 right now,” said guard Josh Shipp. “I do know that we need to keep getting better throughout the season. I don’t think we’re as good as we want to be.”
The road to that level begins today at 11 a.m. at Pauley Pavilion against Michigan (11-1), which may not be quite as good as its record indicates.
The Wolverines’ victories have come against opponents that before Friday had a combined 48-76 record. Only two of them have winning records: Davidson (11-3) and Harvard (7-5). Their lone loss came against Carolina State (7-4), which has lost three of its last five.
Howland sidestepped a question about the strength of Michigan’s schedule, saying only that the Wolverines are “a really good team. I think they’re going to be in the NCAA tournament.”
Howland said he is most concerned about Courtney Sims, Michigan’s 6-foot-10 center who averages a team-best 15.6 points. He is one of three returning starters from the team that UCLA defeated, 68-61, last season at Michigan.
The Bruins were able to neutralize Sims in that game by double-teaming him, and he had only six points on one-for-two shooting. But that was with 7-footer Ryan Hollins in the mix. With Hollins gone, Howland will look to a rotation led by 6-9 Lorenzo Mata to slow Sims.
“He’s the best big kid that I think we’ve played against offensively,” Howland said of Sims. “He’s a very, very good scorer.”
He’s also a good rebounder, averaging 7.6 a game.
Brent Petway, a 6-8 forward, is averaging 7.7 for the Wolverines, who have outrebounded opponents, 461-348. The Bruins hold a 341-316 edge over opponents in rebounding, but have struggled in that area in recent games.
Sam Houston State’s starting lineup averaged 6-feet-4, but the Bruins won the battle of the boards by only two, 32-30. They had been outrebounded, 72-56, in their previous two games against Oakland (Mich.) and Texas A&M.;
“We’ll be very much tested in that respect because they’re big, athletic and strong,” Howland said of Michigan. “We have to keep getting better in that area.”
The Bruins’ 62% free-throw shooting percentage is also troubling. They made 17 of 21 (81%) Tuesday, but Shipp, Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison -- shooting a combined 77% from the line this season -- were 15 for 16 Tuesday. The rest of the team was two of five.
Small vulnerabilities like that, however, keep the Bruins motivated and prevent them from resting on their No. 1 ranking.
“All the rankings are fun, but I think it’s irrelevant at this point in time,” Afflalo said. “We’re not playing each game to hold onto our ranking.”
Collison was even more succinct: “No. 1 doesn’t tell you if you won the championship. That’s what we’re playing for and we’re never going to be satisfied with our play unless we get there. And even if we win the national championship, we probably won’t be satisfied. That’s just the competitiveness of our team.”
vs. Michigan, 11 a.m., Ch. 2
Site -- Pauley Pavilion
Radio -- 570
Records -- UCLA 10-0, Michigan 11-1.
Update -- It is the 13th all-time meeting between these teams, with UCLA holding a 9-3 advantage in the previous 12. The Bruins won at Michigan, 68-61, last season and are 5-1 in the series at Pauley Pavilion. Michigan is 11-1 for the first time since 1992-93. The Wolverines are 1-16 all-time when playing against No. 1 teams.