No. 2 UCLA trying to complete nonconference play with perfect mark

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

UCLA has an opportunity to do something it hasn't done in more than 20 years when the second-ranked Bruins play host to Western Michigan on Wednesday at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.

If the Bruins (12-0) beat the Broncos (3-7), they will conclude nonconference play with a perfect record for the first time since the 1994-95 season. That team went 9-0 in nonconference competition and also fared pretty well in the postseason, winning six consecutive NCAA Tournament games to capture the program's 11th national championship.

"I know what I have," UCLA coach Steve Alford said. "I've got a really good group of guys to coach, (and) they're a pretty good basketball team right now. We're trying to become a great basketball team, and that's a process. That's a journey."

That journey has already produced wins over Nebraska, Texas A&M, then-No. 1 Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio State. The Bruins are leading the nation in field-goal percentage (55.4), assists (285) and assists per game (23.8). They are second in the nation in scoring, averaging 96.9 points per contest.

The Bruins might be at their best when they're running and gunning, but they've also survived tough tests against bigger, more physical opponents that tried to dictate a slower tempo. Ohio State had some success with that strategy early in Saturday's CBS Sports Classic, but the Bruins pulled away to win 86-73.

"We've seen a lot of different styles and a lot of teams have done different things to us," Alford said. "I don't know if it's all of them, but I think we've gone against enough that, as we've got one more 40-minute task before we get into league play, I think we're best prepared."

T.J. Leaf is averaging 17.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for UCLA. Isaac Hamilton averages 17.3 points per contest. Four other players are also scoring in double figures for the Bruins, including Lonzo Ball, a freshman point guard who averages 14.3 points and 8.7 assists.

The Broncos are also in the midst of a season they won't soon forget, but for all the wrong reasons. They lost six of their first eight games and then learned that one of their own had been implicated in a homicide investigation.

On Dec. 9, Joeviair Kennedy was arrested on suspicion of murder in the death of Jacob Ryan Jones, a 19-year-old Western Michigan student who was shot to death Dec. 8. Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins called Jones' death "a devastating loss for our university" and a "devastating tragedy for everybody involved."

Kennedy has been removed from the team, suspended from the university and scrubbed from the team's website. A day after Kennedy was taken into custody, the Broncos banded together to beat James Madison University 74-67.

"In any adversity, the basketball court for a competitor is therapeutic," Hawkins said. "It really wasn't that hard for those guys once we were on the court. They handled it very well."

Western Michigan is led by Thomas Wilder, who is averaging 16.1 points per game. Tucker Haymond averages 13.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists.

Former UCLA standout Larry Farmer will return to Pauley Pavilion as an assistant coach with the Broncos. Farmer was a member of UCLA's national championship teams in 1971, 1972 and 1973. He had two stints as an assistant coach at UCLA before returning to serve as head coach from 1982-84.