A big early win over Kentucky was followed by eye-rolling losses. Improvement stalled in midseason. As the team neared the midpoint of Pac-12 Conference play, it was nowhere near the top of the standings.
Sound familiar? Similarities abound between this season’s UCLA Bruins and the version from two years ago that plummeted into basketball oblivion by losing eight of its last 10 games.
Sophomore forward Alex Olesinski shook his head Tuesday when reminded of the latter team — not because of the similarities but because he believes the current group is nothing like the one that won only two games in February and March 2016.
“Our guys are still sticking together,” Olesinski said as the Bruins (13-7 overall, 4-4 in Pac-12 play) prepared to play California (7-13, 1-6) on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion. “We’re doing a good job of staying together, staying close, so I think that’s going to help.”
The Bruins were clearly a splintered group two years ago, players following different agendas as the losses mounted. Now they seem united in agreement that turning things around must start against the Golden Bears.
UCLA doesn’t have many more easy games left in conference play. After Cal, loser of six consecutive games, comes a stretch that includes home games against Stanford and USC and road games against nationally ranked Arizona and Arizona State.
“The truth is, these three home games are huge — huge,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “We’ve got to play really well against Cal, better against Stanford, better against USC and that’s got to be our trend over the next two weeks or it really sets up a lot of tough things that could happen in February and March.”
Reversing the Bruins’ fortunes figures to start with fixing their defense. Rotations have been late, help defenders have been slow to arrive and big men switching onto guards have been blistered for three-pointers or drive-by layups.
“We’ve had slippage the last two weeks and we can’t have it anymore,” Alford said. “It’s got to stop right now and we’ve got to buy into what we’re doing defensively and get stops and that will help our offense.”
Another area that needs improvement is trust.
“Just trusting the guy next to you that they’re going to help you out if you get beat or if you mess up,” Olesinski said, “that’s something we need to develop more.”
UCLA is currently listed among the “Next Four Out” on ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s NCAA tournament projection, meaning the Bruins have some ground to make up to avoid the indignity of their season ending at the Pac-12 tournament for the second time in three seasons.
Are things starting to feel like they did the last time that happened?
“Nah, nah, not at all,” said guard Prince Ali, a redshirt sophomore. “We just gotta continue to keep working, and we’re working hard. We’re going to fix it.”
Where: Pauley Pavilion
On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570
Update: The Golden Bears have dropped all six Pac-12 Conference games since that high-flying day when they wiped out a 17-point deficit in the final 9 1/2 minutes on the road against Stanford in their conference opener. Included in that stretch of defeats was a 107-84 setback against UCLA at Haas Pavilion in which the Bruins set their season high for points. Junior guard Don Coleman leads Cal by averaging 16.9 points per game.