|After its victory over Colorado on Saturday, UCLA has now won nine in a row. (Getty)|
They were the laughingstock of the nation just a few days after we all carved up the turkey. Ben Howland's UCLA Bruins had lost to Cal Poly in Pauley Pavilion -- and we all started to speculate on how much longer the man who took the program to three consecutive Final Fours would last in Westwood.
Fast forward 48 days later, and the Bruins are among the hottest teams in the nation. Shabazz Muhammad is in shape, Josh Smith and his weight issues have departed to Georgetown -- and UCLA has reeled off nine consecutive wins, including four in a row to open Pac-12 play.
The latest was a road win at Colorado on Saturday afternoon. It may not seen like much, but this team -- which is admittedly defensively challenged -- has made steady progress and could challenge Arizona for the league title.
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There was a reason some had the Bruins in the preseason Top 10. Howland welcomed a recruiting class that had the distinction of having to save the coach's job. It included Muhammad, point-forward Kyle Anderson, big man Tony Parker and somewhat unheralded scoring wing Jordan Adams.
But Muhammad missed the first three games before the NCAA gave the wing with an NBA-ready body the green light to play in a game. Muhammad has brought a much-needed intensity and toughness to the team and his presence -- along with Howland opting to go with a smaller lineup -- has allowed the Bruins to get out and run at times.
Travis Wear had 23 points against the Buffaloes, Adams -- who has been arguably the team's best player thus far -- added 18, Muhammad finished with 14 and Anderson had a dozen points, 10 boards and five assists.
The Bruins can score and they are beginning to understand their roles. They had 97 in the overtime win over Phil Pressey and Missouri a couple of weeks ago. They don't necessarily need an elite-level point guard to run this team. There are enough weapons for Larry Drew II. In fact, all he needs to be is that floor leader who doesn't make mistakes. He entered the game Saturday with a terrific 5.1-to-1 assist-turnover ratio.
Howland has accepted the fact that he needs to allow these guys to play with more freedom. They aren't ever going to bring back visions of Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount teams, but Howland has allowed these guys to push the ball at the right time. Anderson is able to advance the ball quickly -- and Muhammad is dangerous in transition.
UCLA is 14-3 and there's no shame in two of the setbacks. One came against Georgetown in Brooklyn in Muhammad's college debut. Give the Bruins a mulligan. Then there was the loss to a ranked San Diego State team on Dec. 1. Truly, there's just one brutal loss on the resume -- to Cal Poly. That was back on Nov. 25. That was a game in which Norman Powell logged 30 minutes, Muhammad struggled from the field and was still 10 pounds overweight and Smith was still in a Bruins uniform.
This is a different UCLA team. Are the Bruins a national title -- or even a Final Four contender?
Probably not. But they have become fun to watch -- and no one is laughing anymore.