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Bruins to open Pac-12 play with ‘target on our back’

UCLA guard Lonzo Ball reacts after making a three-point shot against Kentucky during the second half of their game on Dec. 3.
(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

Maybe Lonzo Ball wasn’t just shushing a crowd when he held an upright finger in front of his mouth after making a shot on the road against Kentucky a few weeks ago.

Maybe the UCLA freshman point guard was also expressing an opinion about his team’s stature.

The Bruins might be the No. 1 team in the Pac-12 Conference, if not the nation, wildly surpassing expectations given their undefeated start and the stumbles of their conference brethren. Every other Pac-12 team besides USC has lost at least two games, and the Trojans’ unbeaten start has come amid a glorified exhibition schedule that has included only two opponents from a Power Five conference.

Oregon, picked by the media to win the Pac-12, fell to Baylor and Georgetown. Arizona, predicted to finish second, lost to Butler and Gonzaga.

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UCLA, expected to place third, doesn’t look like it has an equal. The second-ranked Bruins have gone 13-0, including a triumph over then-top-ranked Kentucky on the Wildcats’ home court to go with victories over Michigan and Ohio State.

It’s the first time UCLA went undefeated in nonconference play since the 1994-95 team, which ended its season by cutting down the nets in Seattle’s Kingdome after winning the school’s most recent national championship.

But on Wednesday evening, when the Bruins open Pac-12 play against No. 21 Oregon (11-2) at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore., the conference ledger starts at 0-0.

“Obviously, having a No. 2 ranking and doing what we did in nonconference, we have a target on our back,” UCLA guard Bryce Alford said Tuesday, “but we know that they’re the favorite so we have to go in there and try to punch them first.”

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The Bruins’ supercharged offense could leave most of the bruises.

UCLA is averaging 95.8 points per game, on pace to break the conference record of 92.3 points per game the Bruins set during the 1967-68 season. The Bruins score and do it resourcefully, continuous ball movement leading to the nation’s most efficient offense. UCLA is scoring 124.7 points per 100 possessions, according to analytics guru Ken Pomeroy, becoming college basketball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

“They are a 10-0 run team just waiting to happen,” Western Michigan Coach Steve Hawkins said last week after his team learned this the hard way during an 82-68 loss to UCLA.

The Bruins say they want to be great, something that may not happen until they become better defenders. Their defensive efficiency rating of 96.5 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks No. 82 in the country, though UCLA Coach Steve Alford noted recently that his team was trending in the right direction.

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Besides, it’s going to be hard to outscore his team on most nights.

Ball’s passing wizardry is reflected not only in his 8.3 assists per game, which put him on track to break Pooh Richardson’s school record of 7.6 per game, but also in the improved shooting percentages of his teammates in the backcourt. Aaron Holiday is shooting 55.4% (up from 39.4% last season), Isaac Hamilton is shooting 50.3% (up from 44.5% over his first two seasons) and Bryce Alford is shooting 45.8% (up from 38.9% over his first three seasons).

“A lot of it’s him because of the way he shares the ball and the talent he brings and the amount of open shots he can get you,” Bryce Alford said of Ball, “but it’s a collective thing. It’s about the way we’ve been moving the ball with all five guys on the court.”

Eight has been more than enough when it comes to UCLA’s rotation. The Bruins only went that deep even before center Thomas Welsh missed the last four games because of a bruised right knee, leaving Holiday and center Ike Anigbogu as the only regulars to play off the bench.

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Welsh is expected to return against the Ducks, who hope to get leading scorer Chris Boucher back from an ankle injury that sidelined him the last two games.

The beginning of Pac-12 play will signal the end of one lengthy streak involving these teams. Ball has a personal 48-game winning streak (not counting exhibitions) that goes back to the state championship game when he was a junior at Chino Hills High. Oregon has won 33 consecutive games on its home court, the third-longest winning streak in the country.

The latter streak shouldn’t intimidate the Bruins, who ended Kentucky’s 42-game winning streak in Rupp Arena earlier this month.

“Games like that taught these guys how to win and will continue to do so,” Hamilton said. “So I’m excited for what they have in store.”

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::

UCLA

AT OREGON

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday.

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Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore.

On the air: ESPN2; Radio: 570.

Update: No. 2 UCLA can match its best start since the 2006-07 team started 14-0 with a victory over No. 21 Oregon. The six Bruins teams that won more than 14 consecutive games to open a season all won the national championship. … The Ducks (11-2) have won nine games in a row since a 2-2 start. They lead the conference in turnovers forced (14.8) and blocked shots (8.2) per game. Oregon is also holding opponents to 37.3% shooting, the second-lowest percentage among Pac-12 teams.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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Twitter: @latbbolch


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