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Bruins hit rewind to rebuild

No. 4 UCLA knows chances rest with new players and how they learn from miscues.

November 20, 2008|David Wharton | Wharton is a Times staff writer.

NEW YORK — A few weeks into his college basketball career, Drew Gordon has already learned to dread the rewind button.

Every blunder the young forward commits on court is revisited, at length, during film sessions that Coach Ben Howland arranges specifically for him and the other freshmen in UCLA's vaunted recruiting class.

"When he sees something he doesn't like," Gordon says, "he will let you know about it."

Every careless pass. Every bad decision on defense.

"Wait, wait. Rewind. I don't like that. Rewind. All right, coach, I got it. I got it. Rewind. All right, we'll just watch this one more time. Rewind. Actually, you know what? Rewind."

Six, seven, eight times. And there were plenty of miscues to dissect after last week's victory over Miami of Ohio, things that need to be corrected as fourth-ranked UCLA faces Michigan in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic tournament at Madison Square Garden tonight.

Howland explained: "We have a lot of guys who are still learning things for the first time."

To call UCLA a young team is something of a misnomer. The starting lineup includes veterans Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, James Keefe and Alfred Aboya.

But the Bruins need the precocious Jrue Holiday to flourish opposite Collison in the backcourt. They need Gordon and J'mison Morgan to help establish a post presence. And they need minutes off the bench from Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson.

In other words, UCLA's success this season depends on the new guys' learning curve.

Michigan Coach John Beilein called it a transitional period for a UCLA program that lost Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the NBA, but added that the Bruins are situated to make that transition "as good as anybody in the country."

The freshmen gained some confidence from their season opener against overmatched Prairie View A&M, Gordon grabbing a game-high eight rebounds and Lee doing even better with 12 points and six rebounds.

Before that, in two exhibition games, Morgan showed flashes of strength inside while Anderson had seven assists without a turnover. Holiday had the looks of a budding star.

"I was just excited," he said after scoring 12 against Cal Baptist in the first exhibition. "Just to showcase the freshmen's abilities, what we came here to do."

But Howland kept repeating that his team had been together only a few weeks, not nearly enough time to gel. He warned that the opposition would get tougher.

Then came the first real test against Miami. In 40 minutes on the floor, the freshmen had a combined 10 points and five rebounds with no assists and three turnovers.

At one point, Gordon scrambled to cover an open player on the perimeter, leaving his man alone under the basket for a layup. Holiday gambled on a steal, missed and got burned for a three-point basket that tied the score. He also threw an errant pass for one of two turnovers.

"You can't make those types of plays in a close-fought game," said Howland, who turned to junior Michael Roll down the stretch. "I just felt like I wanted to have a player who has been in these situations before, late in the game."

From the first days of practice, Howland has tried to accelerate the education process with those freshmen-only film sessions, which can last up to two hours or, as Lee put it, "a long time."

For all his criticisms after the Miami game, the coach came back a few days later and said his younger players -- and a few of the veterans -- had improved in practice. He praised Holiday's work ethic, saying: "His learning curve is going to be very, very quick."

Still, this week brings a new level of competition with a Michigan team whose offensive style and 1-3-1 zone defense could prove tricky.

If the Bruins reach the final, they will face either Duke or Southern Illinois.

"We've got three seniors so we just need to play our roles," Lee said. "Come in and be like the Energizer Bunny and get the game going."

No matter what transpires at Madison Square Garden over the next two nights, the freshmen can guess what they'll be doing when they return to Los Angeles.

Watching film. Reviewing their mistakes. Bracing for the rewind button.

"You just realize it's the beginning of the season," Gordon said. "And it's going to be a long season."


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