UCLA coach Ben Howland believes the Pac-10 is the best conference in the country. It won’t take long for his team to find out just how good the league really is.
His top-ranked Bruins begin defense of their conference title Thursday night when they host Washington State.
UCLA won the Pac-10 regular-season title in 2005-06 for the first time since 1997 and also captured the conference tournament. Howland doesn’t believe it will be easy to repeat in a league that includes four ranked teams, who along with Washington State (10-1) give the Pac-10 five squads with no more than one loss heading into conference play.
“We have the best league in the country,” he said. “Whoever wins the Pac-10 will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.”
Three of the Bruins’ six games following this contest come against the other three ranked teams in the Pac-10, including Saturday’s matchup with No. 14 Washington.
The Bruins have gone through their first 11 games unscathed despite challenging matchups against Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Texas A&M. They turned in their most lopsided win of the season on Saturday, 92-55 over Michigan.
UCLA shot a season-high 58.9 percent and posted its highest point total of the season.
The Bruins have three new starters from last season’s team that lost to Florida in the NCAA title game, but those players were all key reserves who have quickly adapted into their new roles.
“I think we’re better doing it right now,” Howland said. “When I watched us a year ago on tape, this team is definitely further ahead at the same stage as we were a year ago, as you would expect with all the experience coming back.”
One of those new starters is Darren Collison, who had 15 points and eight assists in Saturday’s win. Collison has stepped in nicely in place of the departed Jordan Farmar at point guard with an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2-to-1.
“Me personally, I’ll never feel like we’re the No. 1 team,” Collison said. “Just (me) being competitive, as well as my other teammates, we’ve got so much to improve. We’ve got to continue to get better.”
Although UCLA is 48-1 all-time at home against Washington State, there are plenty of reasons to believe Thursday’s matchup will be a difficult one for the Bruins.
The Cougars are off to their best start since the 1991-92 team opened 12-0, and they beat the only ranked opponent they faced this season—77-67 over then-No. 18 Gonzaga on Dec. 5. They are allowing a league-low 57.7 points per game, a category in which they led the Pac-10 in each of the last three seasons.
“Washington State’s 11-1 (so) our work’s cut out for us,” Howland said.
The Cougars also have played very well in their last three visits to Pauley Pavilion. After winning on UCLA’s home floor for the first time three seasons ago, Washington State lost 80-77 in double overtime at UCLA two years ago and nearly overcame a 17-point deficit in a 63-61 loss there last season.
With new coach Tony Bennett at the helm, Washington State is trying to end a streak of 10 straight losing seasons.
Junior guard Derrick Low is averaging 15.5 points to lead the Cougars. Low missed the game at UCLA last season due to a broken foot, and only logged eight minutes in the rematch since it was his first game back in over a month and Washington State lost 50-30.