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Jeff Eisenberg

UCLA's turnaround draws praise from an unlikely source

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You may be surprised which Pac-10 coach was most irate that voters didn't rank surging UCLA in this week's AP Top 25.

It was none other than Kevin O'Neill, head coach of crosstown rival USC.

"It's an absolute travesty," O'Neill said on a conference call with reporters. "All I hear about is BYU and St. John's every time I turn on the TV. BYU, St. John's. BYU, St. John's. UCLA beat 'em both. Our league just doesn't get the credit for whatever reason. Maybe it's because we live in a different country and we're three hours behind everybody. But to me, (UCLA's) a top 15, 16 team."

Since O'Neill's Trojans handed UCLA a discouraging 63-52 loss at Galen Center almost two months ago, the Bruins have won 12 of 14 games to move into a tie for first place in the Pac-10 with Arizona. UCLA can clinch at least a share of its fourth conference title in six seasons if it can sweep the Pac-10's toughest road swing at Washington and Washington State this week.

From Malcolm Lee's emergence as a lockdown defender, to improved help defense from the big men, to sporadic bursts of brilliance from forwards Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson, there are a handful of reasons for UCLA's improvement. The biggest factor in O'Neill's eyes, however, has been the development of freshman center Joshua Smith.

Hampered by foul trouble and poor conditioning early in the season, Smith has found a way to overcome those issues recently. He's scored in double figures in eight of UCLA's past 10 games and has only fouled out once, naturally in UCLA's overtime loss at California.

"I think the improvement of Josh Smith and what Ben and his group have done with that kid has elevated the growth of their team," O'Neill said. "Since we beat them here, they've won 12 of 14 and that kid's gotten better every single game every week. He's really given them an inside presence that everybody else can play off.

"I always hear people joke that he's Oliver Miller. Hes much more skilled than Oliver Miller and Oliver Miller played in the league for a long time. I think the kid's a really, really good player."

When it was his turn to speak on the conference call, UCLA coach Ben Howland echoed O'Neill's praise of Smith and added that his team's improved man-to-man defense has contributed to the turnaround. Asked about O'Neill's assessment that UCLA should be ranked, Howland deflected the praise.

"It's nice that Kevin would say that," he said. "I don't know what to say. All I know is I think that our league is very good."

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