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February 18, 2014

UCLA looking to continue its roll in NorCal

UCLA is on a roll once again.

The Bruins have begun the second half of Pac-12 conference play on a three-game winning streak, which has simultaneously slotted them within a game of first-place Arizona and nudged them back into the Top 25 (No. 23 in AP Poll) for the first time in a month.

Head coach Steve Alford has stressed the importance of February setting up March, so right now UCLA is sitting pretty, exactly where it wants to be with six conference games left to go.

"We're right where we want to be," junior guard Norman Powell said. "Hopefully, a lot more things will go our way in the conference 'cause everybody can beat everybody. It's real competitive right now. We're just looking forward to completing the sweep on the road 'cause we really need these road wins."

UCLA's road trips have been a mixed bag of fortune and failure to this point.

The Bruins, who will play four of their remaining six conference games away from Pauley Pavilion, have struggled to find their rhythm on the road, which eventually cost them games against Utah and Oregon State, both teams with losing records.

Although UCLA is the second-most accurate shooting team in the Pac-12 (49.4%), the Bruins' offense has faltered on the road.

In its five conference road games, UCLA's shooting percentage has dipped to 41.1 percent. That discrepancy has been brought on in part by poor shooting from UCLA's top scorers in both the starting lineup, Jordan Adams, and coming off the bench, Zach LaVine.

The twosome shot a measly 33.3 percent in UCLA's first five conference road games, including a combined 1-for-16 effort in the team's four-point loss at Oregon State. Adams and LaVine are shooting a collective 46.4 percent on the season.

Yet, while the Bruins are less accurate from the field on the road, they've still managed to pull off key road wins against Colorado and USC in which they shot 40 percent or less.

The focal point for UCLA in games in which they've been shooting poorly, particularly on the road, has been defense.

Because, as any coach - especially Alford - will tell you, defense leads to offense.

"The last three weeks, this team's really improved defensively, and if that focus can stay the same, we'll become even harder to play against," Alford said. "We have to hope that we continue to stay healthy, continue to play good basketball, and continue to get better."

Although UCLA's guards Powell, Adams, and point guard Larry Drew II played tough defense last season, the Bruins didn't meld well on the defensive end as a team, which led to many easy buckets for the opposition.

This season, however, the Bruins seem to be clicking on defense as a team, which has been vital to their success.

"This year, I feel like we're a lot more help-oriented, and it's showing," Powell said. "Being able to get in the passing lanes and deflect passes, taking the other team out of what they want to do offensively. It's always been big for us to get stops."

Effective help-defense has led to plenty of steals and subsequent opportunities in transition for UCLA this season.

Through 25 games, the team is ranked second in the nation in steals at 10 per game, and all five guards in UCLA's rotation average at least one steal per game.

Adams leads the team and the Pac-12 with 2.92 steals per game, which is good enough for fourth amongst all Division-I players. In UCLA's most recent win against Utah, Adams recorded four steals, which tied his total of 73 from last season.

With six regular-season games remaining, he's nine steals away from breaking Cameron Dollar's single-season record of 82 steals. He's on pace to surpass that mark within four games.

"I'm just in the right place at the right time," said Adams, who said he watches his opponents' eyes to predict their next movement. "I'm not the fastest guy or whatever, but I have great anticipation and I know where the ball's going to be."

Yet, steals is often a misleading statistic. Although they often lead to transition opportunities, they don't tell the whole story of a team's defense.

That's apparent when looking at defensive efficiency, which factors in a broader scope of a team's defense. UCLA's defensive efficiency of .960 is identical to last year's, which has the Bruins currently ranked 54th in the statistic.

Nonetheless, UCLA will be hard to beat on either end of the court if it can play the kind of basketball that it's been playing as of late.

"We just want to focus on taking it one game at a time," Powell said. "We're happy to be back in the Top 25. We've been playing great basketball as a team. I feel like things are clicking right now for us. We're just focused on the next game ahead of us and getting better."

The next game on UCLA's plate will be on hostile ground against California, which has been one of the conference's most unpredictable teams this season.

The Golden Bears began league play with five consecutive wins, but then lost three in a row, including a double-digit defeat to the Bruins. They then upset then-No. 1 Arizona at home, but lost to rival Stanford on their home floor the subsequent game.

Nevertheless, Cal is coming off two-game road sweep of the Washington schools and could tie UCLA for second place in the Pac-12 with a win on Wednesday.

The Bruins are not only looking to hold their ground in the standings, but also avoid a repeat of last year's embarrassing defeat in Haas Pavilion in which they essentially lost the game at halftime, down 25 points.

"Cal beat us pretty bad up there last year," Adams said. "They're a good team at home and they're playing well. So, it'll be tough for us, but we have to come up there focused."



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