UCLA forward Jerime Anderson, left, puts up a shot in front of Richmond's… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Jerime Anderson, a senior guard on the UCLA basketball team, understands the significance of what comes next for the Bruins.
"This is a huge weekend for our team," Anderson said. "The biggest of the year. If we come out and start well, that will do a lot for the team's confidence."
And if the start is slow? Anderson shook his head. "That can't happen," he said.
The Bruins (7-5) begin Pac-12 Conference play with a tough assignment — traveling to Stanford (10-2) on Thursday and California (10-3) on Saturday to play the teams that seem best prepared to do well in the conference.
Having already suffered losses to mid-majors such as Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State, and without a signature win over a ranked opponent, the Bruins understand that an NCAA tournament berth might not be available unless they win the Pac-12 tournament.
Winning the regular-season title might open a March Madness door, too, and center Josh Smith said starting out with the tough trip is fine.
"I'm a competitive guy," Smith said. "I don't care if it is starting on the road against North Carolina and Duke or Syracuse and Pitt, I'd be excited. All the teams in the conference are young. Us, Cal, Washington, Stanford, we had high hopes going into the season and we've all faltered a little bit, but things can change."
Bruins Coach Ben Howland said he's hoping that UCLA has weathered enough troubles and can find some continuity.
The nonconference season was marked by a contentious relationship between Howland and Reeves Nelson, UCLA's leading scorer and rebounder a year ago. Nelson was dismissed from the team last month and the Bruins have won five straight games since then. But none of those victories came over a highly regarded opponent.
"We'd like to get rid of the adversity," Howland said. "But adversity always makes you better if you handle it the right way."
During the winning streak, UCLA has held opponents to 33% shooting and in its last two wins — over UC Irvine and Richmond — seven Bruins have averaged double figures in scoring.
Pains of practice
Howland said starting point guard Lazeric Jones and backup guard Norman Powell both sprained left ankles in practice Monday, but both practiced Tuesday afternoon and are expected to be ready for Stanford.
"Both were coming down on someone else's foot," Howland said. "I'm not pleased two guys sprained ankles. I didn't sleep very well," Howland said.