UCLA heads to Tucson for 'must win'
UCLA knew its win streak would end one day. The Bruins, however, didn't know when the streak was brought to a halt, it had the possibility to be so damaging. The loss to Oregon, which snapped UCLA's 10-game win streak, dropped the Bruins from sharing the top spot in the conference standings, leaving the Ducks in the "driver's seat" to win the Pac-12.
Without question, the Bruins (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) are trying to get back on the winning side of things when they return to action on Thursday at No. 6 Arizona (16-1, 4-1 Pac-12).
UCLA and Arizona are tied with Washington, with each team having one conference loss. In addition to being the preseason favorites to win the conference, Arizona and UCLA share something in common: A loss to Oregon. Neither team will have the chance to avenge that loss to the Ducks during the regular season.
It's a huge game for both programs as they try to keep pace with the Ducks in the Pac-12 standings, but a must-win?
That's certainly what the Bruins are calling it.
"This is virtually a must-win for us," said UCLA forward Travis Wear. "After losing to Oregon we need to bounce back.
"We're all feeling that way with Oregon not having to play Arizona or us again....this is a big week for us. We got to get two wins to keep ourselves up there near the top (of the standings)."
That's an inordinate amount of pressure for one team to put on itself, especially one that goes just eight deep -- half of which are freshmen -- playing in front of a "WHITEOUT" crowd in Tucson.
However the team feels this approach is one that works for them.
"This is by far going to be the most hostile environment we've been in all year and it's going to be a big game," Wear said. "I think that we've done a good job though going into games when we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and when we really know it's going to be a big game.
"I think the last time we did that was (against) Missouri. Going into that game, we viewed that as a must win and we came out and we played well and I hope we do the same thing against Arizona."
Looking at Thursday's game at Arizona in this manner can be even more complicated for the Bruins with the health of Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson in question. Both missed practice time this week suffering from a stomach virus.
"Hopefully, they'll be OK," UCLA head coach Ben Howland said.
A limited Anderson, or if he's out of the lineup altogether, could be extremely damaging in the rebound department -- a place the Bruins have had consistent struggles. Anderson is the team's leading rebounder, averaging 9.1 boards per game.
It could provide more playing time for seldom used Tony Parker, who plays just 6.6 minutes per game.
Even with Anderson in the lineup, UCLA is behind the 8-ball in trying to match up with the Wildcats front line.
"They have a size advantage," Howland said of Arizona.
7-foot center Caleb Tarczewski along with 6-foot-7 Solomon Hill and 6-foot-8 Brandon Ashley lead a team that are atop the conference in rebounding margin. On average, the Wildcats have been 9.4 boards better per game than their opposition.
"They're even a better rebounding team than Oregon," Howland said. "That's a real wakeup call for us."
Rebounding, almost single-handedly cost UCLA the game against Oregon. It's been a point of emphasis this week in practice and in the film room. The sequence in which the Bruins allowed four offensive rebounds on the same trip down the floor was shown over and over.
"He was looking back at everybody that wasn't rebounding and everybody who was trying to cherry pick out and it looked bad," said UCLA guard Shabazz Muhammad.
Members of the team admitted to looking past Oregon while thinking the Ducks would just bow down at the thought of the Bruins' 10-game winning streak. It was thought the notion of taking teams for granted was behind them after the embarrassing setback to Cal Poly earlier this season, however, it reappeared last Saturday.
One thing they know is that mindset certainly can't travel with them to Tucson when they face the No.6 team in the country in a "must win."
"This is a gotta win for us," Muhammad said. "We gotta win this game. No questions asked, especially since we loss to Oregon when we thought we were going to win. So we have to come in there and win this game."