'Tisn't the season at UCLA

The start of basketball is usually Bruins' time to shine, but loss to Fullerton in opener suggests 2009-10 could be an exception.


The UCLA basketball team will return to practice this afternoon, back to work after spending a day pondering all that went wrong in the season opener against Cal State Fullerton.

There was a lot to think about.

The Bruins showed little resemblance to teams that reached the NCAA tournament, not to mention three Final Fours, over the previous five seasons.

Instead, the double-overtime loss Monday -- coupled with lackluster performances in two exhibitions -- reinforced a growing suspicion that UCLA is headed for its rockiest season since Coach Ben Howland adopted a fallen program in 2003.

"It might look that way right now," senior Michael Roll conceded. "We have a lot of improving to do."

The Bruins showed occasional spark on defense, forcing 19 turnovers and limiting Fullerton to 40% shooting, but the offense struggled.

A team that averaged 56 shots last season seemed to abandon Howland's controlled approach, firing up 84, a surprising total even with added time.

Too often, the Bruins settled for long jumpers against Fullerton's zone, making only 31% and shooting five for 29 from three-point range. They were almost as bad from the free-throw line, making 47%.

"I'll be shooting free throws tomorrow," said Roll, who missed a crucial one-and-one front end in the final minute of regulation.

In a game that was tight most of the way, things started to slip as guard Malcolm Lee, among UCLA's leading scorers, battled leg cramps and began missing his shots in the second half.

Freshman forward Reeves Nelson responded with three quick baskets, looking rough but aggressive in the paint. Then, with 10:28 left, Howland stuck him on the bench.

Asked whether he was surprised, Nelson said: "Yeah, but I think Coach got a little distracted or something. It's his call who plays, so I wasn't going to be upset about it."

Howland took the blame.

"We should have played Reeves Nelson more minutes," he said. "He makes freshman mistakes . . . [but] we're going to have to live through some of those mistakes because he can do some things offensively for us, around the basket in particular."

The Bruins also faltered when, leading by a point and needing to stop Fullerton with 18 seconds remaining, they had fouls to give and Howland wanted his players to use them as the Titans were trying to inbound the ball.

"Foul, let them take it out again," he said. "Foul again, disrupt their timing."

That didn't happen. Instead, Fullerton guard Jacques Streeter was fouled in the act of shooting and made one of two free throws to force overtime.

But to focus on the details of the game is to overlook larger questions waiting to be answered as the season progresses.

On offense, the three seniors who should be leading an otherwise young squad need to raise their level of play.

Roll had 17 points and five assists but missed nine of 15 shots. Nikola Dragovic led the team with a career-high 14 rebounds but made two of 14 shots. James Keefe had nine rebounds but was never a factor on offense.

That only increases the pressure on the emerging sophomores, especially point guard Jerime Anderson. The Bruins need more from him than Monday's one-for-11 shooting and three assists.

And perhaps Howland should place more trust on his highly touted freshman class, giving valuable time to Nelson, Mike Moser and Tyler Honeycutt, who is expected to return from a leg injury in several weeks.

On defense, this team has not exhibited the quickness required to pressure the ball in Howland's trademark style, which might call for an adjustment in philosophy.

Two questionable exhibitions and an opening loss are not enough to determine a season -- and the shooting percentage will no doubt improve as the season goes along -- but even at this early stage, the Bruins seem to understand the challenge ahead.

As Nelson put it: "Obviously we have a lot of work to do for the better teams that we're going to be playing."


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