UCLA, a pre-season Top 20 team favored to win the Pac12 title, is off to a shocking 0-2 start, losing embarrisingly at home to two rinky-dink teams that they should have disposed of by half-time. These double-digit defeats rank with the worst two-game loss stretch in the post-Wooden era..
A big reason for these losses is the selfish, childish behavior of 6-8 junior forward Reeves Nelson, UCLA's leading scorer and rebounder last season. He played, though not very well, in the 69-58 loss to Loyola Marymount but, due to a suspension for acting like a spoiled brat, missed the Tuesday night thrashing by Middle Tennessee State, 86-66.
According to sources with access to the team, Nelson has an acrimonious relationship with some of the players and coach Ben Howland. Rather than being the team leader, he's the leading distraction, creating an atmosphere of tension that's undermining the coach's efforts. He's a jerk, but a talented jerk and easily the team's best player.
Even with Nelson not behaving badly, UCLA would probably be struggling. In those two games, the offense was stagnant, highlighted by horrible shooting, especially from long range. The team is particularly deficient at point guard, with Lazeric Jones, who isn't quick enough and both shoots and passes poorly.
The defense, coach Howland's specialty, needs serious polishing. Against Middle Tennessee, it was exceptionally leaky, allowing the Blue Raiders to shoot 71.4%. In both games, time after time, opponents were blowing by sluggish defenders for easy layups, unchallenged by any backups. Center Josh Smith wasn't much help. A potential beast if he ever slims down, he clearly spent his off season binging on fast food.
To make things worse, the perimeter defense was non existent, with both teams steadily bombing the Bruins, hitting a combined 20 out of 26 three-point attempts.
It turns out that the loss of two of last season's stars, Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, left really gaping holes. So far the Ware twins, expected to help fill those gaps, haven't done much. They're neither athletic enough nor superior shooters. And it looks like guard Jerime Anderson, just off suspension, doesn't have what it takes to be a Pac12 star.
A continuing problem is that Howland is trying to fit players into a system unsuited to their skills. He covets the man-to-man defense, one that his players simply aren't athletic enough to efficiently execute. The zone defense, not his favorite, is a better fit for this crew. But reality is finally setting in. In the wake of those disastrous losses, he's now saying he may sprinkle in some zone schemes.
Though badly in need of fan support, the Bruins have had little so far. While Pauley Pavilion is being renovated, the team is stuck in the Sports Arena, located in a seedy downtown area where many UCLA fans fear to tread. So crowds have been tiny, just when the team needs all the cheers it can get.
It's way too early to give up on the Bruins. After two unpleasant days, Howland lifted Nelson's suspension, quelling rumors that he might either transfer or be kicked off the team. If the volitale forward stops being a knucklehead, plays up to his potential and embraces the leadership role, the Bruins just might spiral out of this funk.
On Monday in Maui, they play a Division II school, Chaminade. This should be an easy win. But if they lose or limp to a victory, there's clearly big trouble ahead.