With two losses in the early season, and another slip in the polls, the UCLA basketball team faced a critical challenge this week.
Making better cuts in the motion offense? Learning to attack the zone defense?
The university is holding final exams, so the Bruins were looking for a few hours of shut-eye between tests, papers and a limited practice schedule.
"Long nights and early mornings," swingman Michael Roll said. "You just have to crank through it."
One more thing. Sixteenth-ranked UCLA plays DePaul in the second game of the John R. Wooden Classic at the Honda Center this afternoon.
The visiting Blue Demons don't figure to present an overly difficult test, not as challenging as, say, Introduction to Folklore. The Big East Conference team arrives with three consecutive losses, having fallen to Northwestern (by 27 points) and Morgan State in the last week.
"If we get the last shot and hold them scoreless, we might have a chance to lead at the half," DePaul Coach Jerry Wainwright said.
But it is Coach Ben Howland's job to make sure his UCLA players respect every opponent, so he came up with reasons to worry.
"They've got some good players," he said. "I've watched the film."
Start with forward Dar Tucker, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who is averaging 20.3 points and seven rebounds. Center Mac Koshwal, a native of Sudan, is averaging 12.8 points and 10.8 rebounds but has missed time this season because of a sore foot.
On defense, Howland said, "They play man-to-man and pressure you, get after you. They also play a 2-3 zone."
UCLA prefers to stay close to home during finals week, playing at Pauley Pavilion. Though Anaheim isn't so far away, Howland did not like the idea of traveling anywhere at such a busy time.
Freshman guard Jrue Holiday, for example, had two 10-page papers due this week and was among several players with exams Friday morning.
"I'm trying to get through this week," he said. "Not all-nighters, but staying up late, probably till 2:30 or 3."
Roll started ratcheting up the schoolwork on the team's recent trip to Texas. He faced an 8 a.m. test the morning after Sunday night's home game against Cal State Northridge.
"I was up all night studying," he said.
That didn't leave much time to focus on basketball. The Bruins have said they need to improve on offense and shore up defensive play that has allowed opponents to shoot almost 44% from the field.
Instead, they got several days off to study over the last week and Monday's practice wasn't much more than a conditioning session. Center Alfred Aboya missed a workout because of his class schedule.
"Obviously we're not going to be in the gym all that much," Roll said. "We're not going to be putting in extra time when we've got a major test the next day."
The team expects to return to its normal routine with four home games against nonconference opponents before the Pacific 10 schedule tips off on Jan. 2. That leaves three weeks to build more cohesiveness between veterans and the freshmen who figure so prominently this season.
In the meantime, the new guys might learn something about time management, senior guard Darren Collison said.
"You can't do it just the night before," he said. "You've got to study in advance."
Not that he was offering any hints to younger teammates. "Finals week? I've got to give myself some hints," he said.
But the veteran knows what's important when test time comes around.
"You're going to need your energy and your rest," he said. "Sleeping is key at this point."
UCLA today VS. DePAUL
Time: 4 p.m.
On the air: TV: Channel 9; Radio: 570.
Where: Honda Center.
Records: UCLA 5-2, DePaul 4-3.
Record vs. DePaul: 11-6.
Update: The Bruins make their 12th appearance in the John R. Wooden Classic and have an 8-3 record in the doubleheader event that bears the name of their legendary former coach. Freshman guard Jrue Holiday is second in the Pacific 10 Conference in steals, averaging 2.1 a game. The Blue Demons started their season with four wins but have dropped three straight. This month they rallied to within two points of California in the second half before losing, 77-67.
-- David Wharton