Not yet at full speed, UCLA makes strides

Bruins see much room to improve, but 7-3 mark upgrade from last season

National notebook

January 09, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There was little reaction in Los Angeles after UCLA lost at home to UC Santa Barbara by a point last month. Maybe Bruins fans were too preoccupied with other issues -- Kobe Bryant's court case or, perhaps, Michael Jackson's arrest -- to fill the radio talk shows with their typical early season harangue.

Or maybe they were still too deep into the honeymoon with new coach Ben Howland.

"It's a new era and people are looking at change and trying to forget about the past," junior point guard Cedric Bozeman said from Los Angeles earlier this week. "Not so much negativity, just trying to keep a positive attitude, which is very good for us."

The Bruins haven't exactly been world-beaters, but their 7-3 record (including a 3-0 start in the Pac-10) after last night's win over Washington State seems to be light years from last season's 10-19 disaster under former coach Steve Lavin.

The three losses -- to UC Santa Barbara, Kentucky and Michigan -- have been by a total of seven points. UCLA also narrowly won its season opener by one point over Vermont.

But there are signs that the Bruins are headed in the right direction, evidenced by a win over struggling Michigan State and, more recently, Oregon.

"We're by no means there yet," said Howland, a Southern California native who came to Westwood after rebuilding Pittsburgh into a Big East power. "We still have a long way to go. We're turning the ball over too much. We've had one good game from the foul line in our last three games.

"By no means are we playing at the level we hope to play at as the season progresses."

Some of the old habits have been hard to break. UCLA is still more careless than selfless, as evidenced by the team's 140 turnovers and 133 assists so far. But the Bruins have played hard, and won many fans back when they nearly beat Kentucky after falling behind by more than 20 points.

"I think the fans appreciate Coach Howland because he's really forcing our intensity level. We're playing hard every night," Bozeman said. "We're in every game, giving ourselves a chance to win."

Opposing players and coaches have taken notice.

"UCLA has a new coach, and they run a good system now," Oregon's Andre Joseph said after the Bruins ended a five-game losing streak to the Ducks with a 81-74 victory Sunday in Los Angeles. "They are tough."

Said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant whose Huskies play host to the Bruins tomorrow in Seattle, "They're pretty solid. Defensively, they're definitely sound. They don't have a lot of gimmicks. They play with a purpose at both ends."

It hasn't been easy for the Bruins, who went into the season without T.J. Cummings. The 6-foot-10 senior forward sat out the first semester of games after being declared academically ineligible. Brian Morrison, a shooting guard who transferred from North Carolina, is now out with a badly pulled hamstring.

The biggest surprise has been junior guard Janou Rubin, a former walk-on who has found his way into Howland's regular rotation. Rubin scored 13 points against Oregon and should continue to receive more time with Morrison sidelined.

"He's one of the top 10 guys in practice every day who gets the most minutes," Howland said of Rubin. "I just like the fact that Janou plays smart. He remembers all the little detail things. I'm really happy for him and excited that he's playing so well. Obviously, we need it with the injury to Morrison."

Knight's homecoming

Bobby Knight isn't exactly known for his sensitive side, but in taking Texas Tech to his home state for a game against his alma mater, Knight showed he still can be melancholy when he's not spewing expletives on national television.

"I've never forgotten what Ohio State has done for me, when I was here as a student and what it enabled me to do after that," said Knight, who played on the Buckeyes' national championship team in 1960 and graduated from there in 1962. "I have felt deep down more for Ohio State than any of the schools I've coached."

Knight's current players understood how important it was for them to win.

"Coach was happy to come back home like anybody would, so we wanted to come out and play well and keep him in a good mood," Texas Tech guard Ronald Ross said after the Red Raiders beat the Buckeyes, 80-72.

Knight's mood is pretty good these days, with Texas Tech at 12-2 going into tomorrow's Big 12 opener at home against Oklahoma State. When that mood changes -- with Knight it's only a matter of time -- depends largely on the play of senior guard Andre Emmett.

Emmett, who has had the typical love-hate relationship with his coach that many of Knight's stars have endured, had 27 points and 11 rebounds against Ohio State. It was the fifth double double of the season for Emmett, who is averaging a Big 12-best 21.5 points a game.

"We had no answer for Emmett. Then again, a lot of teams haven't had an answer for him," said Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien. "Emmett is the best player we've played against and is maybe the best player in the country."

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