Bruins may be better than advertised
There may be work left to do, but UCLA showed the nation it's on its way back
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Their uniforms haven't changed, in color or in style.
But it has been a while since UCLA's blood looked as blue as it did Thursday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
A game that was scheduled as a matchup of college basketball's royalty West of the Mississippi actually lived up to that billing. Kansas outlasted previously rebuilding UCLA 77-76 in front of a raucous crowd of 16,300.
It was, in just about any other year, exactly what was expected from the Jayhawks and Bruins. A thrilling, back-and-forth game that left spectators inside this cathedral of the college game hoarse.
It also left UCLA fans across the country throwing their remotes at the television after a controversial foul call on Bruins guard Malcolm Lee with seven-tenths of a second remaining sent Kansas guard Mario Little to the line with the score tied; Little hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. But that's another story.
It's just not what we expected this year, with UCLA coming off a 14-18 season and losing back-to-back games last week against Villanova and VCU at Madison Square Garden.
UCLA came into Lawrence as a 16.5-point underdog. It tipped off as a 14-point underdog.
If you are the cynical type, you might've thought the Bruins were lucky to be on national television opposite LeBron James' return to Cleveland.
Instead, UCLA looked like a young team that could get very, very good this season. And sooner than people think.
Sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt scored a career-high 33 points on 11-for-15 shooting -- including a game-tying 3-pointer with five seconds left -- and looked and played like a guy who might leave early for the NBA draft. Freshman center Joshua Smith (17 points, 13 rebounds) looked like an automatic double-double in any game in which he plays more than 25 minutes. And sophomore forward Reeves Nelson looked like ... well, like a good player who had a tough night (five points and five rebounds, after double-double performances in his previous four games).
But the fact that UCLA pushed the Jayhawks -- and their now-64-game home winning streak -- as far as it did on a night when its leading scorer was held to five points on 2-for-5 shooting is impressive in and of itself.
"I was excited about our character and our toughness tonight," Howland said. "We kept coming back."
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I know, I know. The lasting impression of this game is going to be the controversial -- some, including me, would say awful -- call that ended up deciding this game.
I've seen the replay a dozen times already and I still haven't seen one that was conclusively a foul, or at least conclusive enough to decide a game as good as this one was.
But in the larger scheme of things, it's a Thursday night in November. Both teams have a lot of season still to play and a lot still to prove.
UCLA did prove one very important thing to itself and to anyone watching the game: The Bruins may not be all the way back from the wreckage of last season, but they're heading in the right direction.
"It hurts, but it's a good thing because it lets us know how good we are," Honeycutt said.
"It definitely could've put us on the map."
There's no "could've" about it. If UCLA had upset the No. 4-ranked Jayhawks in Lawrence and ended their home winning streak, it would've put UCLA back on the map.
But maybe it'll end up being a good thing that UCLA has to delay its gratification a little while longer.
The Bruins clearly have the potential to challenge the best teams in the country again. But they're also clearly not one of the best teams in the country again just yet.
Their backcourt is still iffy, their depth suspect, and they can't count on Honeycutt to shoot like that every night.
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Starting center Brendan Lane -- it seemed he started only because Howland thought the referees would call a quick foul on whoever set a tone for the game first, and he preferred that foul be called on Lane rather than Smith -- had no points, three rebounds and just one block in 13 minutes before fouling out.
Smith played well in the time he was in there but still needs to get in better shape. So Howland was forced to play redshirt freshman center Anthony Stover for seven minutes and hope the poor kid's eyes didn't pop out of his head with all those people screaming at him inside Allen Fieldhouse.
"We're still very young," Howland said."We have all these young kids and we're playing games after 20 practices. I would really like to see the NCAA allow us to start our practices a week to 10 days earlier than we're doing right now. And I think the players would echo those sentiments."
In other words, the Bruins still have a lot of learning left to do.
"It's good for us, being so young -- having these type of games is going to help us," Honeycutt said. "Playing two top-10 teams is only going to help us in league play.
"It's a tough three losses, but we know how good we are."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.