UCLA was ranked fourth in the AP preseason poll, but has already hit a few stumbling blocks. Despite the lofty standards the team has set in recent years, coach Ben Howland isn’t overly concerned.
The 12th-ranked Bruins look to bounce back from their second loss of the season as they host Cal State-Northridge on Sunday night.
UCLA (4-2) came into this season ranked fourth, which wasn’t a surprise considering its recent dominance under Howland. The Bruins have won at least 30 games each of the last three seasons - including a school-record 35 last season - and have advanced to the Final Four in each of those campaigns.
Though a fourth straight trip to the national semifinals is very much a possibility, UCLA has lost two of its first six games for the first time since 2003-04, Howland’s first season with the team and the last time the Bruins weren’t invited to the NCAA tournament.
Then-No. 4 UCLA fell 55-52 to unranked Michigan in the 2K Sports Classic on Nov. 20, and won its next two games before a 68-64 road loss to eighth-ranked Texas on Thursday.
“It’s a tough loss we experienced today against a good team,” Howland said. “We made a lot of mistakes tonight, and we’ll go back and watch the film. We had a hard time.”
Though Howland was disappointed with the defeat, he’s not panicking. In fact, he was somewhat encouraged after his team rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to reclaim the lead before eventually losing to Texas for the second straight season.
“We forget little things,” he said. “There’s just a lot of different plays we need to work on. It’s plays, not one specific aspect of the game. We’re a young team, and we’ve just got to keep working. … (To) have a chance to win with three minutes to go is a good sign for our team.”
Howland has had to replace three regular starters from last season’s team, all currently in the NBA, including lottery draft picks Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. Senior guard Darren Collison - the team’s top returning scorer - expects some growing pains, but remains confident the Bruins will find their way.
“We have a lot of new guys and it’s going to take us a couple of weeks to get back on the same page,” said Collison, who had 22 points and five assists on Thursday. “We made a lot of mistakes out there, both offensively and defensively. Basketball is a five-man game, and once we pull together we’ll be fine.”
Cal State-Northridge (1-5) probably isn’t as optimistic after its 55-47 loss to Drexel on Monday. The Matadors shot a season-low 34.5 percent from the field in their fifth consecutive defeat.
The Matadors hope to bounce back by pulling off their second consecutive upset at Pauley Pavilion, where they won these teams’ last meeting 78-74 on Nov. 21, 2000. Cal State-Northridge used a 21-5 run in the second half to top then-15th-ranked UCLA for the first time in five games in the all-time series.
Replicating that success could be a challenge, however. The Bruins have won 31 straight home games over unranked nonconference opponents dating to a 75-60 loss to Notre Dame on Feb. 28, 2004.