From beneath a self-inflicted avalanche of embarrassment, UCLA has risen.
Above .500, that is.
UCLA improved to 6-5 with an 89-60 win against UC Irvine on Tuesday before 4,090 at the Sports Arena, marking the first time this season its win column had more notches than its loss column.
The Bruins have won four in a row — all against relatively creampuff competition: Pennsylvania, Eastern Washington, UC Davis and Irvine, which fell to 2-9 and has lost three straight.
Still, any win looks good for UCLA after its disastrous start, when it lost four of its first five by double digits. That said, there’s little doubt the Bruins are night-and-day different from that team.
“Guys are really coming together,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said.
Is it because volatile forward Reeves Nelson was dismissed Dec. 9?
“That’s the reason why I removed Reeves,” Howland said. “It has improved our chemistry.”
The Bruins have one final nonconference tune-up — against Richmond on Friday — before Pac-12 play begins next week.
UCLA was the media’s preseason pick to win the Pac-12, an estimation that looked way off weeks ago but could be closer to reality as the league appears wide open (read: awful) and UCLA has improved all-around.
One such area is the Bruins’ guard play, which was overshadowed in the preseason by their allegedly-dominant front line but has emerged in the last two blowout wins, specifically Tuesday.
“UC Irvine focused so much on our frontcourt that we were able to get open shots,” explained guard Tyler Lamb, who scored a career-high 17 points.
UCLA responded by shooting a season-high 54.8% overall and making nine of 18 three-point shots. Freshman guard Norman Powell made four three-pointers and scored a career-high 19.
Powell also grabbed seven rebounds and has snagged 17 boards in the last two games after recording only 12 combined in his first nine.
“Norman is getting better and better,” Howland said. “That is what we expected from him.”
Behind the trio of Powell, Lamb and Lazeric Jones, who scored 11, UCLA led as much as 17 in the first half.
That lead stretched to 20 with Powell’s two-handed dunk off a Lamb alley-oop pass early in the second half.
“We’ve been working on that all week in practice,” said a smiling Powell.
After that, Irvine, which was led in scoring by Chris McNealy’s 11 points, caved, and the Bruins’ lead eventually fattened to 34. In all, five UCLA players scored in double figures.
“That’s exactly what we want,” Howland said. “That’s beautiful.”
Center Joshua Smith had his second straight strong showing, scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds in a season-high-tying 22 minutes.
Travis Wear returned from a two-game absence because of a skin infection on his left foot to score six points and grab six rebounds.