PALO ALTO — A little early to be must-win games, a little late to be a wake-up call, UCLA faces No. 21 Stanford tonight and California on Saturday on a trip that could set the tone for the rest of the Bruin season.
Will this be another Bruin race to the Pacific 10 Conference title or will it be a season-long struggle for confidence and quality play?
The Bruins, 7-3 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-10, get the biggest challenge first, facing big and mobile Stanford (8-2, 1-1), which lost by a point at Arizona last week and beat UCLA by a point at Maples Pavilion last season. The Bruins have won nine consecutive conference games since then.
Next, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco instead of Harmon Gym, are the Golden Bears (9-4, 0-2), who changed coaches and shed talented players in the off-season yet seem to have gotten tougher.
"This is probably the biggest road trip we'll have," UCLA junior forward J.R. Henderson said. "This is the point where we can either get on a roll this road trip or it could put us down where we'll have to build ourselves up again.
"We don't want to be fighting back, down in the Pac-10. We want to stay on top."
UCLA remembers clearly it won the conference title the last two seasons by leaping out to quick leads that were not surrendered.
But, perhaps most important for this sometimes-shaky team, the Bruins want to follow up that start with a statement, to show the world, and themselves, they are roaring again.
"I don't want to say that yet," Henderson said. "I think after this trip, if we sweep up there, it'd be safe to say that we're on a roll, we're back and we're playing good and our heads are on straight."
Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery, who might have the one group of athletes who can match up, man for man, with the Bruins, knows that UCLA's early struggles in the nonconference schedule aren't necessarily a sign of season-long troubles.
And Montgomery says he can see that UCLA interim Coach Steve Lavin has been working on the Bruins' discipline problems.
"They've got . . . so many guys that can hurt you," Montgomery said. "I think the things that Steve is trying to get done, I think they understand if they don't do what they are supposed to do there will be repercussions."