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How Low?

UCLA is unrecognizable in opening loss; problems seem too tough to fix

November 18, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Disillusioned by the Trojans, befuddled by the Lakers, and having it up to here with the McCourts, I plopped down on the couch Monday night for some comfort TV.

It was UCLA basketball, season opener against Cal State Fullerton, the first installment in a sports drama as regal as Wooden's court and reliable as Howland's stare.

I plopped down expecting the basketball version of "Law & Order."

Instead, I saw the beginning of what appeared to be a bad reality show.

"So You Think You Can Shoot?"

For more than two hours while shouting, "Detroit Mercy me!" I watched the worst UCLA performance that I've seen in my 13 years writing columns about the team.

I've seen Princeton open the back door, and this was more unsettling. I've been there when Cal State Northridge danced through the front door, and this was more unreal.

Fullerton played hard and deserved the 68-65, double-overtime victory, but a day later, the question remains.

Who exactly did they beat?

Was this really UCLA? Because this certainly didn't look like any UCLA team I have ever seen, not in Jim Harrick's worst moments or Steve Lavin's weirdest moments or even Ben Howland's most harried moments.

Howland predicted it would be a rebuilding year, and warned of the effects of losing four starters, and reminded everyone of his team's youth and uncertainty. The Pacific 10 Conference writers picked the Bruins to finish third, and the national writers didn't even put them in the top 25.

But still, after three Final Four appearances in the last four years, you expect that even a young product would carry the Howland brand.

You didn't expect to see this.

You didn't expect to see a UCLA player throwing a ball off an unsuspecting teammates' back. Twice.

You didn't expect to see a UCLA player grabbing a rebound and quickly throwing up an air ball. More than once.

You didn't expect the Bruins to make only three baskets in two five-minute overtime periods.

And you certainly didn't expect the Bruins to miss nearly 70% of their regular shots and more than half of their foul shots.

Watching this strange collection of kids flail around among thousands of empty seats at Pauley Pavilion as the clock ticked toward midnight was like watching some distant small-conference team in an obscure holiday tournament.

Who exactly did Fullerton beat?

Whoever it was, it wasn't within an eight-clap of UCLA.

"So, Coach, how are you doing?"

"Been better."

When we spoke about noon Tuesday, it sounded as if he had not slept.

"Not really," he rasped. "You never sleep much after nights like that."

With the lousy 9 p.m. start pushing Monday's game late, Howland remained at his office watching the film until 2:30 a.m.

He went home, walked the floors, and returned to watch the tape again Tuesday morning.

He would watch it again Tuesday afternoon before presenting it to their team.

"I have to be prepared to point out everything," he said.

I complimented him on keeping his cool on the sidelines during the nightmare, an amazing feat from a guy so intense, during the three Final Fours he smiled exactly twice.

"Those kids out there are under a lot of pressure, going off on them would not solve anything," said Howland, pausing. "That's the kind of thing that happens in practice."

There are certain things, however, that practice cannot fix.

You don't produce six NBA first-round picks in four years without consequences.

You don't tie Duke as the college with the most current NBA players -- 14 -- without impact.

But, not letting Howland completely off the hook here, you also can't misjudge your recruits like this.

Howland's thoughtful offensive schemes are desperate for a point guard, but Jerime Anderson hasn't shown that yet, while local kid Larry Drew Jr. -- who spurned UCLA after they signed Anderson -- is playing big minutes for North Carolina.

Howland's rebounding philosophy needs a tough big man, but there doesn't seem to be much there, either, the program having yet to recover from the loss of Kevin Love, with J'Mison Morgan not yet living up to his hype.

Some folks will want to point to the Bruins' three seniors as being role players unable to run a team, but that's not fair; their leadership has always been rooted in the locker room.

This team, and college basketball in general, is about freshmen and sophomores. And while Malcolm Lee has shown flashes, and Tyler Honeycutt should help when he returns from his back injury, right now it's tough to project the Bruins having the younger talent to even survive until March.

"It's early, I am not going to say we're not a tournament team after one game," said Howland. "But we are retooling. And it's going to be tough."

It's Howland's toughest test in seven years here, if you ask me, producing Law and Order in a team that has neither.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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