UCLA is entering the John Wooden Classic after a week of turmoil, putting pressure on coach Ben Howland.
Steve Fisher is in a lower-profile situation at San Diego State, but the former Michigan coach can relate to what Howland is going through.
The No. 23 Aztecs have won 25 straight games against teams from California heading into Saturday night's meeting with the troubled Bruins at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
These teams haven't met in nearly 21 years, with UCLA winning the last eight matchups to take a 16-5 lead in the series. This contest figured to be a celebration of premier Southern California programs, with Howland's club boasting star freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams and the Aztecs (4-1) seeking a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Instead, the focus has been on the woes of UCLA (5-2), which had a difficult four days earlier this week.
The Bruins were upset 70-68 by Cal Poly on Sunday, the same day guard Tyler Lamb announced he was leaving the program. They were ranked 11th heading into that game but fell out of the AP poll the following day. Things got worse Wednesday when center Joshua Smith said he was quitting the team for undisclosed personal reasons, though the team routed Cal State Northridge 82-56 later that day.
Howland has come under fire, saying he plans to "coach my tail off" to fix UCLA's problems.
Fisher, who famously guided Michigan to the 1989 title when taking over after Bill Frieder was fired before the NCAA tournament, had words of support for the embattled coach.
"When you are UCLA and you have 11 national championship banners there, that's pressure," Fisher said. "They have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. So there are immense expectations. And yet, Ben's been there, done that, took them to three straight Final Fours. He knows what he's doing."
Howland said he was shocked by the departure of Smith, who was eighth on the team in scoring with 5.2 points per game. Lamb started 32 games last season as a sophomore, averaging 9.0 points, but appeared in only one this fall following arthroscopic knee surgery.
The UCLA players stood by their coach.
"I think Ben is the perfect guy for this team," Muhammad said.
Norman Powell scored 17 points off the bench Wednesday as UCLA shot 53.1 percent. Larry Drew II had a career-high 13 assists and ranks among the national leaders with 8.1 per game.
Howland opted to use more zone defense with four first-year starters in his lineup. That could be a good strategy against San Diego State, which is struggling from 3-point range at a Mountain West-low 26.7 percent.
"They are going to play some zone against us, there's no question about it," Fisher said. "I would, too."
Chase Tapley is the team's top 3-point shooter at 34.8 percent, but he sat out Sunday's 66-60 road victory over USC with a strained patella tendon. Forward Deshawn Stephens logged a season-low five minutes due to a hip pointer.
"I would say both are iffy to be honest with you," Fisher said.
Fisher may want to opt for some zone himself with UCLA shooting 31.3 percent on 3s.
The Aztecs have won four straight since a season-opening 62-49 loss to then-No. 9 Syracuse on Nov. 11.
Guards Jamaal Franklin and James Rahon, starting in place of Tapley, each had 17 points Sunday. San Diego State won its 10th straight game against a team from the Pac-12 Conference.
The Aztecs' last loss to a California team was a 71-63 defeat at Pacific on Nov. 25, 2009.
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