Now would be a good time for the UCLA basketball team to live up to its preseason billing.
The Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12 Conference. California, which pops by the Sports Arena to visit at 1 p.m. Saturday, is co-leader of the league with six games to play.
The Bears also have the conference’s top RPI rating, 47 as of Friday — a key indicator of NCAA tournament potential. UCLA was No. 104, one spot behind Princeton.
“Cal is a team that can definitely go to the NCAA tournament and make a nice run,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said.
UCLA, 14-10 overall, sits 7-5 in conference games and in sixth place, a game behind Arizona, Colorado and Oregon, which are tied for third.
California (19-6, 9-3) is tied with Washington for first place.
“It’s a big opportunity for us to get a win against a team that is probably going to be in the NCAA tournament,” guard Jerime Anderson said. “I think that’s something we need right now.”
UCLA was handled by California, 85-69, in Berkeley on Dec. 31.
“They played well and we played poorly,” Howland said. “You have to give them credit.”
Still, Howland said, “We allowed a lot of separation. We allowed them get a lot of easy shots.”
And this time around?
“We’re better than we were in late December,” Howland said. “Our man defense has improved.”
The Bruins certainly were stingy Thursday in a 72-61 victory over Stanford Thursday. The Cardinal shot 39.3% and turned the ball over 22 times. UCLA had a season-high 15 steals and blocked 11 shots.
But UCLA’s defensive effort was offset by a wobbly offense. The Bruins had 19 turnovers — five each by guards Anderson and Lazeric Jones — and nearly squandered a 16-point, first-half lead.
The Bruins blew double-digit leads in road losses to Washington and Oregon, so Anderson saw growth Thursday.
“We’ve got to be able to punch back,” Anderson said. “Teams are not just going to fold, not ever. We’ve got to be able take those hits and keep rolling, keep the lead and keep playing good basketball.
UCLA shot 63% from the free-throw line against Stanford, making 17 of 27. The Bruins were six of 11 in the final 1 minute 19 seconds.
“We’ve got good shooters on this team and we’re practicing all the time,” forward Travis Wear said. “We’ve just got to start consistently knocking them down in the game.”
UCLA has made 65.2% of its free throws during Pac-12 play. The Bruins were 10 for 15 in a two-point loss to Washington and 10 for 21 in a seven-point loss to Oregon.
Wear feels better
Wear, who missed the Washington State game with a high ankle sprain, logged 28 minutes against Stanford.
“Once I got going and warmed up on it, it felt all right,” Wear said. “At the beginning, it was tight. They have so much tape on it right now it feels like a cast.”
The Bruins needed Wear to hold off the Cardinal.
Center Joshua Smith was coming of a 24-point game against Washington and a 19-point game against Washington State. But he picked up his fourth foul with 16:15 left in the game. David Wear, Travis’ twin brother, followed him to the bench with his third foul 24 seconds later.
That left the Bruins’ inside game in the hands of Travis Wear, who made five of eight shots and had five rebounds.