UCLA head basketball coach Ben Howland Associated Press 2011

Ben Howland didn't know, after watching his team get shellacked by 11 at crosstown rival USC on Jan. 9, that UCLA was on the verge of something great.

The Bruins had lost two of their first three league games and were 9-6 overall, seemingly on the outside of any premature postseason prattling.

"I was just hoping we could win the next game," he said.

UCLA has done that, almost 10 times over.

The Bruins have won nine of their past 10 games to vault into second place in the Pac-10.

The team's only loss came at the Arizona Wildcats, who have also won nine of 10. The Bruins are one of two teams to beat BYU, barely lost at No. 1 Kansas and toppled giant-killer St. John's.

They seem a likely NCAA tournament team.

We asked Pac-10 coaches how it happened:

• With defense. Since losing by 11 at McKale Center, the Bruins have held five straight teams to under 40 percent shooting afield.

"Our team defense keeps improving," Howland said. "That's probably the most important thing: to be able to help each other, to get better at rotating."

Center Anthony Stover's increased playing time has helped, Howland said, "because his greatest strength is defense."

• With experience. USC coach Kevin O'Neill said the Bruins are "just getting older."

Six of UCLA's nine rotation players are underclassmen. One of the three juniors, guard Lazeric Jones, has transferred from junior college.

"They're going to improve more as the season goes on," O'Neill said.

Howland agreed.

"Just the experience that they've gained, it's always easier to win once you start winning," he said.

"Conversely, the same thing is true when you lose."

• Guard play. UCLA's ballhandlers don't get the credit of scoring machines Reeves Nelson, Tyler Honeycutt or Joshua Smith, but coaches said they accounted for the team's consistency.

Junior guard Malcolm Lee is the team's leading scorer, and Jones has started every game.

"I like their guards and their athleticism," Oregon coach Dana Altman said.

Oregon State coach Craig Robinson praised UCLA reserve guard Jerime Anderson and said that, had Jones not been limited by a balky hand, he would be "one of the best point guards in this conference."

Even with the injury, Robinson said, Jones "probably is."

• Ball movement: Cal coach Mike Montgomery said the Bruins have enough talent to share the ball.

"What I've seen from them is they're really moving the ball much better," he said. "They really have a clear idea of what they try to do. They're not getting stuck.…

"They've got enough guys that are all capable of scoring the ball that it makes them that much more difficult to guard."

• Confidence. Montgomery joked about one obvious reason for UCLA's streak.

"It probably starts with talent," he said.

UCLA plays like it belongs in the top echelon of the Pac-10.

"I can tell you, once you get on the court with that team, they have the look and feel of a very confident group," Robinson said. "Very confident."