By Steve Finley
Special to the Observer
The UCLA men's basketball team is 9-1 going into a season-defining game against national power Duke University Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The Bruins are doing a lot of things right under first year head coach Steve Alford. They are scoring almost 90 points per game. They are averaging close to 20 assists per game and with only eight turnovers. With those kind of numbers UCLA should compete for the Pac-12 championship, but they have one major weakness. They don't rebound well.
"We have to become a better rebounding team," said Alford after a 95-71 win over Prairie View A&M last Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. "If we want to become a championship team we have to become a better rebounding team."
The Bruins led by as many as 30 points, but rebounded the opponent by only one, 31 to 30. If UCLA expects to compete with the elite teams in the Pac-12 and nationally they need to hit the boards. The leading rebounder on Saturday was 6-9 guard Kyle Anderson with seven. The Bruins' 6-10 starting forwards, David and Travis Wear, had three rebounds each.
"We need to focus on our man and block him out," said Travis Wear. "We like to turn and run when the shot goes up but we need to locate our man, block out and then go find the ball. We just need to keep playing. We are a great basketball team, we are 9-1 and the rebounding will come."
Will the rebounding come in time to beat the 8th-ranked Duke Blue Devils? They are coached by Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski, who is the closest thing to former UCLA coach John Wooden in college basketball. Wooden is the best college basketball coach in history. The Blue Devils are currently 8-2 and are led by one of the best freshmen in the country in 6-8 220 pound Jabari Parker.
"This is the kind of game you think about when you are a kid," said Anderson. "It's going to be a big test for us."
Anderson is averaging 13 points, nine rebounds and seven assists per game. Jordan Adams is the Bruins' leading scorer at 21 points point game and freshman Zack Levine is averaging 14 points per game.
"We are a young team but we have to be more consistent," said Alford. "It's a habit. If we want to be a championship team it has to be habit forming."
The Bruins, who dropped out of the top 25 ranking for the first time this year, will return home on Sunday to host Weber State at 4 p.m. The Pac-12 still has three teams in the top 25, No. 1 Arizona, No. 15 Oregon and No. 21 Colorado.
UCLA will begin Pac-12 play Sunday, January 5 when they host USC at Pauley Pavilion.