Even Without Last Year's Talent, UCLA Still No Slouch

Photo: Patrick Christopher has combined with Theo Robertson and Jerome Randle to form the nation's top three-point shooting team.
Alan Wong/File
Patrick Christopher has combined with Theo Robertson and Jerome Randle to form the nation's top three-point shooting team.

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Some might think that after last year's trip to Pauley Pavilion-where the Cal basketball team endured a heartbreaking 81-80 loss to UCLA following Josh Shipp's over-the-backboard, game-winning floater-that the ensuing return to Westwood would be a little more important than a normal game.

Not so, according to Bears point guard Jerome Randle.

"We're just looking forward to playing," Randle said when asked about last season's loss. "That was definitely a terrible loss and what happened, we weren't really pleased with the decisions that were made on the call. But we're just ready to go in and compete and play as hard as we can to get the 'W'."

Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Pauley, the Bears get that chance, as Cal aims to take down a No. 17 Bruins team that it lost to three times last season.

Considering the trio of losses and UCLA's own trifecta of consecutive Final Four appearances, many in Berkeley might have assumed that the Bruins would be the Bears' stiffest competition this season.

But after losing three players to the NBA-lottery picks Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love and forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute-UCLA looks to have taken a step backward in 2009.

Though they still have senior mainstays in point guard Darren Collison and scoring swingman Josh Shipp, the Bruins had to break in a number of new faces-Jrue Holiday, Nikola Dragovic, Malcolm Lee and Drew Gordon, to name a few-with sporadic success.

They've already lost as many games (four) as they did all of last season, most recently an 86-75 loss at Washington on Saturday that dropped them into a tie with Cal for fourth place in the Pac-10 with a 5-2 record.

Yet even with the appearance of a slight recession of Ben Howland's program, Bears coach Mike Montgomery was quick to acknowledge that winning against this particular Bruins team is no small feat.

"They are a very difficult team to beat for the same reasons as usual," Montgomery said. "They are a little more perimeter and three-point oriented than they have been. They are very physical, very well-coached and are strong defensively. Collison is a very good point guard that doesn't need to score to have an impact on the game. They're a very difficult team to beat.

"They're the same (defensively). They'll monster and double down at the post if they feel they need to, like they always have. They may not be as big as they were but they'll still come at you and monster you hard at the post and make you get it out of there. I don't know that they would do that to us but they still bump you on every cut."

The Bears' own perimeter scoring trio of Randle, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson, which comes in combining for over 47 points a contest, will need to figure out the switching, bumping and doubling defense to keep Cal in the game. And on the inside, forward Jamal Boykin, who put up 18 points against the Bruins in perhaps his best performance of last season, could also be another key to success.

On a grander scale, success tonight could be a key to kicking off the upcoming second half of the Pac-10 slate in the proper fashion. They come in having lost two of three, leading Randle to declare the matchup against UCLA as a "turning point in the season."

And according to Randle, nothing-especially not what happened last year-should take their minds off of competing and, ultimately, winning.

"People may want to make a big hype about what happened last year," Randle said. "But when push comes to shove, we just have to go out there and try to get the 'W' and not even think about that.

"We have to go out there and beat them, just like anyone else in the conference."


Contact Jack Ross at [email protected]

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