A year ago, the four letters most feared inside Pauley Pavilion weren't UCLA but NAIA.
Tiny Concordia nearly upset the storied home team in an exhibition game, the Bruins needing a late three-point basket to pull out a one-point victory.
It would have been easy to shrug it off as a bad game against an inspired opponent, except for the little matter of what transpired the rest of the season. UCLA finished 14-18 and did not reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years.
"It was kind of an early viewing of how the year went," junior guard Malcolm Lee said.
So it's no surprise that sophomore forward Reeves Nelson said he was treating the Bruins' exhibition game against Westmont on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion like a Pacific 10 Conference game.
"We're going to play as hard as we can and try to win by as much as we can," Nelson said.
If the early practice reports hold up, the Bruins might also play as fast as they can. During a 20-minute intrasquad scrimmage Saturday in which the teams utilized a new up-tempo attack, they combined for 123 points and shot 64%.
Of course, the flip side is they didn't play much defense.
"Right now, my biggest concern is how we are defensively," Coach Ben Howland said.
What, exactly, was lacking?
"Hedging screens, extending screens, trailing cutters, blocking out, staying in front of the ball, contesting every shot, not letting the ball in so easily on post defense.… There's a million areas," Howland said.
The Bruins are lagging defensively in part because they spent much of last season playing zone and have only two players — juniors Lee and Jerime Anderson — who have experienced a full year of Howland's trademark man-to-man scheme.
Howland has talked for years about quickening the pace on offense, only to revert to what some observers consider a plodding attack. This season, players said, the coach is finally loosening the reins.
"We've all wanted to play that" style, sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said. "A lot of people have criticized us for being too slow. I doubt they'll have anything to say about us being too slow. If anything, they'll say that we're too fast now."
UCLA will show off its new look against Westmont, an NAIA team coached by John Moore, the brother-in-law of former Bruins Coach Steve Lavin. The Warriors, who run a Princeton-style offense, opened their exhibition season last week with an 88-68 victory over Cal State Maritime.
For the Bruins, the hope is that Thursday's exhibition game portends a return to respectability instead of another descent into basketball oblivion.
"If we want to do the things we want to do this year and beat the teams we want to beat," Anderson said, "we just need to start taking care of business from the get-go."
Howland declined to divulge his starting lineup for the exhibition game, but based on his continued praise of Lazeric Jones, it appears likely that the junior college transfer will start at point guard alongside Honeycutt, Lee, Nelson and freshman center Joshua Smith. "He has some pretty good toughness," Howland said of Jones, who did not commit a turnover during two recent scrimmages. "He's physical, strong, a good defender. He does a good job of taking care of the ball."