UCLA Basketball: The Bruins' 5 Toughest Remaining Pac-12 Challenges

Robert PaceContributor IIIJanuary 24, 2014

UCLA Basketball: The Bruins' 5 Toughest Remaining Pac-12 Challenges

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    UCLA got back in a winning swing on Thursday as it defeated Stanford in a convincing double-digit victory at home.

    One-third of the way into Pac-12 conference play, the Bruins are third in the conference with a 4-2 record, with losses to No. 1 Arizona and Utah.

    However, UCLA’s road to the top of the Pac-12 is filled with plenty of obstacles.

    Among their remaining 12 conference games, the Bruins have a handful of matchups that can either make or break their season.

    Here’s a look at UCLA’s toughest remaining conference challenges.

5. at Oregon (Jan. 30)

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    After being ranked in the nation’s Top 25 following its strong 12-0 nonconference run, Oregon has tanked, losing five consecutive conference matchups after winning its first against Utah.

    However, UCLA shouldn’t expect to mow over the Ducks simply because of their woes early in conference play.

    In fact, Oregon will be a dangerous team for the Bruins to face in their first matchup this season in Eugene because of their determinedness to get back on track amid the Ducks’ losing spell.

    Although it dons a 1-5 record in Pac-12 play, Oregon isn’t losing its conference games by wide margins, falling short by single digits in its last three games at an average of 5 points.

    Their showdown comes right after UCLA’s home stretch against the Bay Area schools and will be important for the Bruins as they approach the remainder of their forthcoming three-game road trip.

4. at USC (Feb. 8)

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    UCLA trounced the USC Trojans by 34 points in their first matchup of the season, but that is by no means an indication that the Bruins will dominate the rivalry series this season.

    While the Bruins were able to dominate USC to tip off conference play, the Trojans proved when they beat Cal for their first Pac-12 win that they can hang with the best teams in the conference.

    If USC can pick up some steam in its three games before facing UCLA, it will be an even more formidable foe for the Bruins.

    UCLA will still be favored to win the game, but the bitter rivalry between the two schools will guarantee that USC will play a hard-fought game to try to avoid being swept by its crosstown rival.

3. vs. Utah (Feb. 15)

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    George Frey/Associated Press

    UCLA’s follow-up matchup against Utah after losing to the Utes in Salt Lake City is a must-win for the Bruins.

    UCLA played its worst basketball of the season against Utah in its disappointing 74-69 loss to the Utes, so it’ll be integral that the Bruins play well against Utah the second time around and redeem themselves.

    The principal reason that UCLA lost against Utah was the Utes’ constant defensive pressure, which forced the Bruins to primarily run a half-court offense, which took them out of their comfort zone.

    Although UCLA has an opportunity to prepare for Utah’s defense by studying it in the meantime between their next matchup, Utah nonetheless presents UCLA with a potentially crippling crisis with its tough defense.

2. at California (Feb. 19)

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    UCLA will likely emerge victorious from its first game against Cal in Pauley Pavilion on Sunday, but the team’s ensuing matchup in Berkeley presents a challenge for the Bruins.

    Although Cal recently tacked on its first conference loss by falling short to USC, a team that UCLA manhandled by 34 points, the Golden Bears are still a dangerous team, particularly when they play in Haas Pavilion.

    With hard-nosed Justin Cobbs running the point and 6’10” senior forward Richard Solomon dominating the paint, Cal could wreak havoc on UCLA if the Bruins get off to a slow start on hostile ground.

1. at Washington (Mar. 6)

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    With former UCLA assistant Lorenzo Romar at the helm, Washington is always a tough team to beat, especially at home.

    UCLA and Washington will only meet once this season, and their matchup comes at crunch time for the Bruins, as it will be their last game of the conference schedule, which will have big implications for their Pac-12 tournament and NCAA tournament seeding.

    Through seven games, the Huskies are an average 4-3 in Pac-12 play, but they haven’t lost a game at home yet and nearly beat No. 1 Arizona in Tucson.

    Washington has many new faces in its starting lineup, but one key player returned for his senior season: C.J. Wilcox.

    Wilcox averages the second-highest scoring average in the conference at 19.9 points per game and has the dynamic ability to take over a game on the offensive end, which could help push the Huskies past the Bruins if they have an off shooting night.