For a basketball team that has won its last five games, UCLA doesn't seem to have much momentum heading into Pacific 10 Conference play.
Maybe it was the way the Bruins nearly collapsed against Montana State. Or perhaps it was their epic free-throw struggles in the final minute against UC Irvine.
Their sloppy play has put them in the awkward position of repeatedly having to answer questions about what went wrong . . . after victories.
"Sometimes we might get too nonchalant or maybe [it's] just not going out there with the enthusiasm that we need to have just because that team doesn't have a number next to them," forward Tyler Honeycutt said Tuesday, referring to a national ranking. "But now that we see how much it can hurt us, I think we'll do a better job."
UCLA (8-4) has no choice but to sharpen its resolve if it hopes to have any success in its first two Pac-10 games, both at home, Wednesday against Washington State and Friday against Washington. The Cougars and Huskies are two of the top teams on the West Coast.
Getting Honeycutt back should help. Coach Ben Howland said he expected his leading scorer to play against Washington State (10-2) after Honeycutt sat out the Bruins' 74-73 victory over UC Irvine last week because of a sprained right shoulder.
Honeycutt proclaimed himself at "about 92%" and said he was no longer having trouble brushing his teeth or inserting his car keys with his right arm.
"I'm able to do everything now," he said.
Honeycutt & Co. will need to play stifling defense for UCLA to contain the guard-heavy Cougars, who have the Pac-10's leading scorer in Klay Thompson (22.3 points per game) and perhaps its most reliable ball-handler in Marcus Capers, who is averaging 5.5 assists for every turnover.
"Their four perimeter players are as good as any perimeter players in the conference," Howland said.
Junior college transfer Faisal Aden is averaging 16.1 points and Reggie Moore is rounding into form after sitting out the season's first five games because of a wrist injury. But pretty much everything Washington State does starts with Thompson, the former Santa Margarita High star whom Howland regrets not recruiting a little more aggressively.
"Believe me, I kick myself in the head every time I think about it because obviously he would be a great player here, as he would anywhere," Howland said.
Thompson has been tremendous in many places during Washington State's current six-game, 14-day trip. The junior guard scored 23 points during a victory at Santa Clara on Dec. 19 and averaged 26.3 points during three games at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.
The Cougars arrived in Los Angeles on the day after Christmas and spent part of Tuesday afternoon at Venice Beach. UCLA hopes to make things a little less leisurely Wednesday night, particularly for Thompson.
"We just have to try to get physical with him and try to wear him down when he's on the offensive end," Bruins guard Malcolm Lee said. "Just keep playing defense."