With only a few big-time opponents on the nonconference schedule this season -- and with losses to Michigan and Texas -- the 15th-ranked Bruins were hoping that a strong performance against the Fighting Irish might impress the NCAA tournament selection committee in March.
Now, however, this morning's game at Pauley Pavilion seems more like cornering a wounded animal.
Playing in the Big East -- the toughest conference in the nation this season -- Notre Dame has suffered a string of defeats to nationally ranked opponents such as Louisville, Connecticut, Marquette and Pittsburgh.
A team that some experts picked to reach the Final Four is 12-9 and fighting for its tournament life.
"They're going to be feeling the weight of having six losses in a row," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said, adding: "But we know Notre Dame is very capable of coming in here and winning."
The multitalented Luke Harangody -- fourth in the nation in scoring at 25.3 points a game -- heads a lineup that also includes one of college basketball's top three-point shooters in guard Kyle McAlarney.
"They're the best shooting team you'll see all year," Howland said.
The Irish have had success when opponents double-team Harangody, allowing him to pass to open shooters on the perimeter. More recently, teams have let the 6-foot-8 forward collect his points, choosing to defend against the long-range shot and pester McAlarney off the ball.
That fits with UCLA's resurgence over the last two weeks. After their own rough patch, losing two of three games, the players committed to defense with immediate results.
In lopsided victories over California, Stanford and rival USC, the Bruins forced an average of 21 turnovers. Those take-aways translated into slightly more than 26 points a game.
A team that had been scoring in the mid-70s started putting up bigger numbers despite easing off at the end. Fastbreak points also rose significantly.
UCLA's faster pace has started to resemble the type of basketball that this smaller, quicker squad was hoping to play when the season began.
"It definitely feels like we're getting there," senior Josh Shipp said. "We're able to get up and down the court a lot more and it's fun to play."
No surprise that Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey sees transition defense as a key for his team, which is neither deep nor particularly strong on defense. But matchups aren't the only issue with today's game.
CBS' broadcast schedule dictated an unusually early 10 a.m. tipoff.
"We agreed to it because I thought it would be good for us to be on national television," Howland said. "We would like it to be a little later."
Speaking on his Internet show, Brey said: "Maybe that'll be an advantage for us."
The Bruins, as they often do during the season, were scheduled to stay at a nearby hotel Friday night. Even with a drive of only a few minutes to the arena, players were already calculating the time of their team breakfast.
"We've got to get up by at least 7 at the latest," swingman Michael Roll said. "I know a lot of guys don't get up at 7."