This is not what Bruin Nation expected when their basketball team secured the second-ranked recruiting class in the country and the season commenced with a renovated Pauley Pavilion.
Having started the year ranked in the top 25 and rising up to 11th during Thanksgiving weekend, UCLA now finds themselves completely out of the Associated Press poll after blowing an 18-point lead to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, of all teams – a mid-major, and a mediocre mid-major at that – in the second half and losing at home 70-68 on Sunday night.
The fact that the Bruins are now out of the polls after being on the verge of the top ten speaks loads about how people perceive them at this early point.
The highly touted freshmen are doing their jobs as the top two scorers are Jordan Adams and recently-cleared Shabazz Muhammad, who are averaging 18.5 and 17 points a game respectively. Another super frosh, Kyle Anderson, is UCLA’s rebounding leader with 8.3 boards a contest.
The Wear twins, David and Travis, and Norman Powell are the other Bruins with per-game averages over ten points.
Yes, I know that Bruin fans will say that it’s early, and with their record at 4-2, it certainly is. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t serious cause for concern.
To start, center Joshua Smith has apparently not lost the necessary weight that he needed to lose to become more effective on the court, and it has showed as his playing time has dropped. I’m convinced that if his weight hasn’t gone down by now, his third year as a Bruin, it probably won’t. And his improvement will probably be limited from here on out.
It’s not my intention to pick on the Kent, WA native, but it sure is frustrating to see someone with so much potential seemingly wasting it for whatever reason.
What I think is the real issue with this program lies in the coach, Ben Howland, who has begun his tenth year in Westwood.
To put it simply, I feel that Howland’s time at UCLA is starting to run its course, particularly with his team underachieving at this point as any coach with a style as harsh as his – it was documented in the Sports Illustrated article, “Not The UCLA Way” – can only last in a school so long before the players and everyone else in the program, whether consciously or unconsciously, grows fed up with the harshness and tunes him out.
For all those who point to the three straight Final Fours that Howland has led the team to, it’s like what Janet Jackson said in her hit song, “What have you done for me lately?”, as UCLA has more or less hovered around the .500 mark in recent years.
Gene Chizik won a BCS national championship at Auburn just two years ago, and after a 3-9 season which saw him go winless in the SEC and lose big in the Iron Bowl to rival Alabama 49-0, he was fired literally the day after that beat down by the Crimson Tide.
The point I’m making is, a team can’t move forward if it’s living on past successes, which it seems to me that UCLA is doing in regards to Howland.
Does all this mean that I’m calling for his outster?
No, not yet. But I will state this:
In my book, because of that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo loss Ben Howland’s seat has officially gotten warm.
Whether that warm seat turns hot or not will depend on how the Bruins do these next few weeks and the rest of the season, starting with their upcoming game this Wednesday against another mid-major team, Cal State Northridge, who at 6-1 is off to their best start in years.
UCLA then faces 23rd-ranked San Diego State in the John R. Wooden Classic on December 1st before going on the road to play Texas on the 8th, with four more non-conference games, including one against 16th-ranked Missouri in Pauley, before Pac-12 play starts in the new year.
If the Bruins are to right this ship, they need to play defense, particularly against the three-point shot as that was what killed them against Cal Poly SLO, and get more meaningful contributions from all of their players; UCLA cannot find themselves depending solely on Muhammad or Adams, because if they do they will be in trouble.
It will be interesting to see how the Bruins bounce back against the Matadors on Wednesday night.