The Bruins have reached a pivotal point in their conference schedule.
Coming off back-to-back losses this past week, UCLA men’s basketball (10-8, 3-2 Pac-12) will return home Thursday night for the first time in nearly three weeks to host Arizona State (13-5, 4-2) – the third-place team in the Pac-12.
The Bruins sit just one spot behind the Sun Devils in the conference standings and will face the second-place Arizona Wildcats on Saturday.
Despite a 4-2 start to conference play, Arizona State has been a mixed bag this season. After downing then-No. 1 Kansas in December, Arizona State went out and lost their next game, a home bout with unranked Princeton.
The inconsistent results have also carried into Pac-12 play, where Arizona State has already dropped games to Utah (9-8, 3-2) and Stanford (9-9, 2-4). Interim coach Murry Bartow, however, said he is impressed with the program that coach Bobby Hurley has built in Tempe over the past two seasons.
“The thing that really jumped out at me: They’ve got really good players and (Hurley) does a great job coaching their team, but then they’re incredibly athletic,” Bartow said. “So it’s up and down and it’s all over the place. They can cover ground at both ends. Just very athletic, very talented, can play fast, can make shots.”
Arizona State beat UCLA in the only meeting between the two schools last season, but the top three scorers from each team in that game have since moved on.
The Bruins’ offensive identity has also changed drastically since that game, placing a heavier emphasis on slashing to the basket and pushing the pace behind sophomore guard Jaylen Hands, rather than relying on the 3-pointer, like teams in years past.
After UCLA turned the ball over 20 times against USC’s zone defense Saturday, freshman guard Jules Bernard said facing Arizona State’s man-to-man scheme could be the remedy for a UCLA offense that has turned the ball over 89 times in its last five outings.
“It opens up lanes for a lot of players on the team who like to drive and use the dribble to get to the basket and create,” Bernard said. “I think that will open up sort of our offense a little bit and allow players to get to the rim easier.”
While Bernard and the Bruins are hopeful that they can right the ship on offense against the Sun Devils, Hands said they will have to kick a few bad habits to the curb first.
“We noticed a trend (where) we’ll be in games and once the big run comes we normally don’t withstand it,” Hands said. “So just being focused and knowing – whether we’re at home or on the road – that teams are going to go on runs and when they go on runs we can’t panic and lose our focus.”
UCLA has won two straight games at Pauley Pavilion, however, and only trailed for a combined 12 minutes and 50 seconds in those two contests.
The Bruins and Sun Devils will tip off at 8 p.m. Thursday.