Having dispensed with cross-town rival USC for the second time this season, the Bruins turn their attention toward a bigger challenge: boosting the sagging image of the Pac-12 Conference.
UCLA (15-11, 8-6) steps out of conference play Saturday to face St. John’s in New York City in a nationally televised game. Although the Red Storm (10-16) is young, inexperienced and without coach Steve Lavin, the Pac-12 needs any good PR it can generate.
The league’s reputation took a beating during nonconference play in November and December, and its RPI computer rankings continue to suffer. With NCAA Tournament selections on their way, the Bruins can do the Pac-12 a small favor with a favorable showing in the Big Apple.
St. John’s is in its second year under Lavin, but the former UCLA coach has been sidelined much of the season while recuperating from Oct. 6 surgery for prostate cancer. Assistant Mike Dunlap — formerly an aide at Arizona and Oregon — is running team in Lavin’s absence.
The Red Storm, featuring freshmen D’Angelo Harrison (16.5 points per game) and Moe Harkless (15.6 points, 8.5 rebounds per game), resides in 14th place in the 16-team Big East.
The Bruins climbed into sole possession of sixth place in the Pac-12 after their 64-54 victory over USC on Wednesday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, former home of the Trojans.
Even in this season in which they must win the Pac-12 tournament crown to secure an NCAA bid, the Bruins were jazzed about beating their rivals again.
“When you sit down and write out goals for the season, beating USC twice is on everyone’s list,” UCLA center Joshua Smith told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s important.”
Added senior guard Lazeric Jones, “Coach (Ben Howland) talks about the importance of this game. I can’t use the words he uses.”
The Bruins leaped out to a 31-16 halftime lead over the last-place Trojans, hammered them 44-24 on the boards and breezed to victory.
ON THE SPOT: Senior guard Jerime Anderson, who had 14 points and five assists in the win over USC, has averaged 14 points and 4.7 assists over the past three games. As the Bruins venture into New York City, Anderson will need to demonstrate veteran leadership, especially against the Red Storm’s high-scoring guard D’Angelo Harrison. The freshman has scored 20 points or more nine times this season, including 29 in a win over DePaul.
–This was the Bruins’ big chance, and they knew it. It was a chance to continue climbing toward a top-four league finish that could give them a three-game road to the Pac-12 tournament crown. They had won four of five and thought they were ready for league-leading Cal.
The Bruins weren’t up to the task, falling 73-63 to the Bears at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. With five games left, they are two games out of fourth place.
Teams that finish fifth through 12th in the conference will need to win on four consecutive days to emerge with the Pac-12 tournament crown. Coach Ben Howland understood the daunting history that goes with that equation, even though it’s a new formula for the Pac-12.
“Look at the numbers, no one had won four in row in 25 years of the Big East tournament,” said Howland, whose 2001 Pitt team won three in a row then lost to Boston College in the title game. “You can do the math.”
Cal toyed with the Bruins much of the afternoon, building a 17-point lead with 8 1/2 minutes left then calmly turning back UCLA’s comeback try.
“It was disappointing, obviously,” senior G Jerime Anderson said. “We saw where we could have been and where we are now.”
UCLA was swept by Cal for the first time in 18 seasons, since Jason Kidd’s days as a college point guard. The Bears didn’t have Kidd in this one. They didn’t need him.
–The Bruins’ loss to Cal was their first in six Pac-12 home games. They are 11-4 at home overall this season, although home is not currently Pauley Pavilion, which is closed for renovations. –Twin brothers Travis and David Wear combined to shoot 1 for 10 in the first half of the Bruins’ loss to Cal, finishing 5 for 19 and totaling 14 points. –The Bruins had zero assists at halftime against Cal, which had 10 at that point. BY THE NUMBERS: 15 — Steals by UCLA in their win over Stanford. The Bruins transformed 22 Cardinal turnovers into 28 points. QUOTE TO NOTE: “None of us came ready to play that game. I told Josh (Smith) before the game that ‘I’m not feeling this. Our team doesn’t feel here today.’ I could feel it in my teammates. I know these guys. I spend every single day with them. The attitude was not there.” — UCLA C Anthony Stover, speaking before UCLA’s home rematch vs. Cal on the team’s 85-69 loss in Berkeley on Dec. 31. Stover did not play Saturday, according to Coach Ben Howland, because of a tendon injury in his foot.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEK’S GAMES: –at St. John’s, Feb. 18 Key matchups: UCLA beat the Red Storm 66-59 a year ago at Pauley, led by Josh Smith, who scored a then-career-high 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting. Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson will try to atone for poor performances in this matchup a year ago, when they combined to shoot 0 for 8. St. John’s leads the all-time series 6-3. FUTURES MARKET: UCLA signee Kyle Anderson, rated among the nation’s elite prospects, was named to the McDonald’s All-American Game. Anderson is a 6-foot-7 G/F from St. Anthony’s HS in Jersey City, N.J. Expect Anderson to step in immediately next season and provide the Bruins with a skilled wing player who can boost their offense. The bigger transition is likely to be his ability to pick up Coach Ben Howland’s defense.
PLAYER NOTES –Sophomore twin forwards Travis and David Wear each posted double-doubles in the Bruins’ win over USC on Wednesday. David Wear had 16 points and 13 rebounds, and Travis Wear had 14 points and 11 rebounds. –Sophomore C Joshua Smith, after scoring 43 points in two games on a trip to his home state of Washington two weeks ago, is averaging just 7.0 points in three games since. Smith had four points and five rebounds in 10 minutes against USC.