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UCLA Bruins hit midseason stride with latest win over Colorado

BOULDER, Colo. -- Travis Wear's postgame press conference after UCLA's affirming 78-75 win over Colorado on Saturday felt like an extension of his in-game performance. Wear had just finished sticking dagger after dagger into the Buffaloes down the stretch, his silky jump shot belying his listed 6-foot-10 height and befuddling the Buffs' bigs. Now seated casually in a chair in a spare locker room deep in the bowels of the Coors Event Center, Wear looked nowhere close to that size, and his deflecting, mostly generic answers gave little hint to the damage he had just inflicted on the court.

Just feet away, standout Bruins freshmen Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson were left to fill in the blanks about Wear's performance and his emerging go-to scorer role. They dropped repeated plaudits about the man who has reinvigorated the Bruins' frontcourt, noting that Wear is the best-conditioned player on the squad and that he's one of the team's "great scorers." A few minutes earlier, head coach Ben Howland said, simply, "Travis Wear was great. I can't say enough about how good Travis was today." Colorado star guard Spencer Dinwiddie, a likely NBA prospect, said Wear "was the best player on the floor" and "a force."

Yes, this is the same Travis Wear who was mostly stapled to the bench in Chapel Hill (along with twin brother, David, also now on this UCLA team) in 2009-10 as North Carolina went to the NIT riding Tyler Zeller, Ed Davis and Deon Thompson in the frontcourt. In related news, this season's Tar Heels are dying for competent frontcourt scoring.

None of this makes total sense, but that seems par for the course around Westwood these days, where after several seasons of frustration and upheaval, the Bruins appear to have found unexpected chemistry and a winning formula. A road sweep in Utah and Colorado last week pushed them to 4-0 in the Pac-12 and they have the look of a serious contender in a league that continues to be in flux.

"We're where we want to be in the new season which started last Thursday, and we just want to keep building and keep improving," Howland said after the latest win. "This team has a lot of room to still continue to grow and I'm just really happy for our players because they're working really hard."

A month ago, none of this seemed remotely possible. After losing athletic rim-protector Anthony Stover in the offseason, the Bruins were being weighed down (in every sense) by indifferent big man Josh Smith, whose chronic lack of conditioning made his presence in the middle of the Bruins' lineup very questionable. Once Smith elected to leave the program (along with guard Tyler Lamb), the Bruins had no choice but to embrace a smallball style that suited their remaining personnel.

The offensively opportunistic, defensively challenged style was completely anathema to the approach Howland perfected in leading UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08, and he even tinkered for a bit with a zone defense to mask the holes caused by inexperience and an overall lack of athleticism. A home loss to unfancied Cal Poly, in Smith's final game, was the nadir, but things have rapidly clicked since then.

In about a month, in the middle of a season, UCLA has cobbled a cohesive team out of four freshmen, a sophomore and three Chapel Hill transfers, one of whom actually quit midseason on the Tar Heels. From a group of big names and reclamation projects seemingly has emerged equality and trust. There is shot distribution balance, with freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams carrying the primary scoring load, and Wear providing an excellent supplemental option. Fellow frosh Kyle Anderson has evolved into the consummate glue guy, averaging almost nine rebounds a game along with 3.6 assists per contest. David Wear is pitching in on the glass and Larry Drew II, the aforementioned quitter, has evolved into a lethal pass-first point guard with a nearly 5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that's more than double his best season's performance in Chapel Hill.

Perhaps more important, the defensive sieve the Bruins appeared to be several weeks ago is tightening up. After having been lit up repeatedly in nonconference play, UCLA held its first three Pac-12 opponents well under one point per possession, and had Colorado in the same bind for most of Saturday's game before some late-game possession tradeoffs made the Buffs numbers look better. The flawed pick-and-roll defense that was mercilessly shredded by Missouri's Phil Pressey was vastly better against Colorado, with the bigs hedging and recovering or switching effectively. Hard double-teams in the post helped mask the Bruins' lack of interior presence and were very effective for much of the game.

In a league filled with mediocrity, the Bruins are far from perfect but look to be better than almost anyone else. Their improvements since December are real, and right now, the results are spectacular.

"In the beginning of the year, we were kind of immature, taking crazy shots. Egos. But we're passed that, Adams said. "... When we lost to Cal Poly and San Diego State, we didn't like the losing feel, so everyone matured."

After several years of mediocre recruiting, this freshman class heralded UCLA's return to the national scene, but much like with Kentucky last season, all the talent in the world still needs a splash of experience to make it come together. Much like Doron Lamb and Darius Miller weren't the Wildcats' best players but had a profound impact and delivered in numerous big spots, Drew and the Wears are playing a similar role for this Bruins team.

"Those three guys in particular," Howland said, "they've been in tough places before, last year and years before, so it's all good."

Maybe it was merely a coincidence, but after Howland finished his postgame comments, he exited and the Bruins players walked in. There were two of the highly touted freshmen who are playing key roles in the UCLA's resurgence, and Travis Wear. Wear led the way into the room, and the others followed. It's a sign of the unexpected, happier times in Westwood, where right now, things definitely are all good.

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