No. 11 UCLA will return to Pac-12 Conference competition on Friday night at Pullman, Wash., for the first of two weekend road games, visiting a Washington State team looking to pull out of a slump.
The Bruins (11-2, 2-0) took an eight-game winning streak into their holiday break, most recently playing Dec. 21 in an 81-54 rout of UC Davis.
The non-conference blowout marked UCLA’s fourth consecutive win by a double digits, in a stretch that included a 10-point win over Kentucky at New York on Dec. 17, and an 87-60 romp at Maryland on Dec. 14.
As far as UCLA’s momentum with its eight-game winning streak, Bruins coach Mick Cronin downplayed the idea following the win over UC Davis.
“I guess I would say I don’t believe in all that stuff,” he said. “I believe in game-to-game and day-to-day. In this era, it’s so hard to keep guys focused on just the team and whatever the team needs to do.”
Tyger Campbell, one of the Bruins’ veteran leaders, echoed Cronin’s position and cited specific goals for UCLA in its pursuit of a conference championship.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said following the win over UC Davis. “Just coming out, be good on defense, we move the ball on offense, but we have to come in with the mentality that every game matters.”
UCLA’s last single-digit margin of victory was also its last Pac-12 game, as the Bruins rallied in the second half to beat Oregon 65-56 on Dec. 4. The Bruins’ next Pac-12 game after Friday will be Sunday at Washington.
Single-digit score games are not out of the norm for Washington State (5-8, 0-2). However, the Cougars have not been on the right side in many of them this season.
Washington State concluded the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu with an 82-73 loss to Utah State on Sunday, finishing the tournament 1-2 and dropping its fourth decision in its last five games.
The Cougars are 2-6 since Dec. 1 in a stretch that includes conference losses at Oregon and a 67-65 overtime heartbreaker against Utah. Washington State since fell 74-70 at UNLV and gave then-No. 11 Baylor a tough contest in a 65-59 final Dec. 18 in Dallas.
“They’re going to keep grinding, get better, get back home, and hopefully we can build some confidence,” Cougars coach Kyle Smith said, according to the Spokesman Review, following the Hawaii tournament.
Washington State faces a tall task against a quality UCLA side. The Bruins have flourished with a combination of balanced offense, boasting four double-digit point-per-game scorers and six posting at least 7.3 points per game. Then there is Cronin’s signature stifling defense.
UCLA is forcing turnovers on 25.3 percent of defensive possessions – the nation’s 11th-best average, per KenPom.com – while committing turnovers on just 14.3 percent of offensive possessions, good for sixth-best nationally.
Washington State is committing turnovers on 21.2 percent of possessions, No. 292 nationally. Cutting down on giveaways is dependent in part on limiting Jaylen Clark’s opportunities for steals.
Clark has 32 steals to lead the Bruins. The versatile wing also is UCLA’s second-leading scorer at 15.7 points per game, behind only veteran Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s 17 ppg. Campbell delivers averages of 13.3 points and 4.3 assists.
–Field Level Media