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UCLA has margin for error in Pacific 10 race

UCLA basketball players will be the first to state the obvious.

“We thought we would be doing a lot better than this,” freshman forward Tyler Honeycutt said.

A 7-9 record would be considered more nightmare than hoop dream by UCLA players, fans and even the coaching staff. Yet, there is a silver lining.

If the Bruins were going to have a season of growing pains, the timing was right. No team in the Pacific 10 Conference has a resume that screams elite status. A 2-2 conference record heading into today’s game against USC has UCLA in the middle of the pack in a conference that seems middle-of-the-pack from top to bottom.

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“You look at the first two weeks of conference play, Washington was picked in the top two and they have lost three games,” UCLA forward Reeves Nelson said. “We beat California and people were pretty down on us. So it’s pretty wide open.”

California is 3-1 and sits atop the conference standings. Arizona State is 3-2 and everyone else has two victories. If a Pac-10 team needs time to find itself, this is the year for it.

“I don’t know if I would say that, but when you look at the conference right now, it is really clear anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. “It’s just hard to predict who are the bottom two teams and who are the top two teams.”

UCLA has shown it could be among either. The Bruins have beaten Cal and Arizona State. But they also have committed 69 turnovers to their opponents’ 39 in four conference games, including 23 in a loss to Stanford.

“Obviously, we don’t like losing games, but this is definitely a year where we can have a few mishaps and still be in the thick of the race,” Nelson said.

They’d prefer that the mishaps didn’t continue, of course.

“We playing better now than we were earlier in the season,” Honeycutt said. “Hopefully we will continue to grow. We want to win the Pac-10 tournament and get to the NCAA.”

Learning curve

Honeycutt, who has started the last two games, is still catching up. His development was slowed last summer by a spinal stress fracture. He recovered, then suffered a stress reaction in his right tibia and missed six games.

“There was a lot of stuff that I could have been doing during the off-season, shooting, dribbling, playing like a lot of guys played during the summer,” the 6-foot-7 Honeycutt said. “I missed a lot. It started to come around not too long ago. You can have practice and scrimmages, but that’s not the same as a game.”

Honeycutt, who is averaging 4.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, started the last two games. He had 10 rebounds in an overtime victory over California and eight against Stanford.

That’s not to say the learning curve is nearly finished.

“You’d be surprised with the fundamentals that are not habits coming out of high school,” Howland said. “Blocking out is one of them. Tyler is a very, very good rebounder. He goes and gets it with two hands. He’s quick to the ball. There are also times where he’s getting blocked out. He can be an even better rebounder.”

Etc.

Nikola Dragovic, who shot 27% in his first eight games, is shooting 52% in his last six. . . . UCLA has three players among the conference’s top 10 in assists: Jerime Anderson (4.2), Malcolm Lee (3.8) and Michael Roll (3.6). . . . The Bruins average 7,479 fans per home game, ranking them fourth in the conference. Arizona is first (13,240) and USC is last (3,883).

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes


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