UCLA forward Reeves Nelson was reinstated by Coach Ben Howland on Wednesday… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
UCLA at least temporarily resolved one big issue Wednesday.
Coach Ben Howland reinstated Reeves Nelson, lifting his indefinite suspension — it lasted two days — after receiving assurances from the junior forward that he would keep his personality in check.
Nelson will return for the Bruins' opener in the Maui Invitational against Chaminade on Monday after sitting out an 86-66 loss to Middle Tennessee State, UCLA's second consecutive defeat against a mid-major to open the season.
Howland said in a statement that Nelson understood his reinstatement was contingent on improving the behavior issues that have included his sulking and berating of teammates when things go awry.
"I acknowledge there are corrections that need to be made and I'm grateful to Coach Howland to have this opportunity to improve and work on being a positive force for our team," Nelson said in a statement.
Nelson's status was part of a rapidly expanding list of issues requiring Howland's attention after UCLA fell to 0-2 for the first time since the 2002-03 season. That was coach Steve Lavin's final five months in Westwood before being fired.
One day after saying it was "a little early to abort your defense," Howland conceded he might incorporate some zone to help compensate for a large and plodding lineup that has struggled to guard smaller, quicker opponents in the coach's preferred man-to-man scheme.
"It's obviously going to be a lot of soul-searching here," Howland said, "but to say it's not fixable, no, I don't believe that."
UCLA allowed Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State to shoot a combined 57.4%, including 76.9% on three-pointers. Middle Tennessee made 10 of 11 shots from beyond the arc, nearly breaking a NCAA record.
Proponents of mixing in a zone defense include former Bruins forward Tracy Murray, an NBA veteran who now works as an analyst on the team's radio broadcasts. Murray said a zone could help prevent dribble penetration while protecting post players Joshua Smith and twins David and Travis Wear.
"You're forcing teams just to shoot perimeter shots," Murray said of the zone's upside. "If you're going to go with a bigger lineup — if you're going to have the Wears and Joshua in there — you won't really miss a beat."
Howland also said he might change the way his team defends ball screens, going back to the hedging approach in which a defender runs to the other side of a screen to try to cut off the player who is moving around it.
Smith said the Bruins' schemes won't dictate success as much as their effort.
"Zone, man, 1-3-1, quarter-trap — it doesn't matter what we run," Smith said. "We need five people out there playing defense for 35 seconds at a time."
Expected to be an immovable force, the 6-foot-10, 315-pound Smith has been somewhat immobile after an off-season in which his conditioning regressed. David and Travis Wear also have struggled to rebound and defend in their first games in 20 months after transferring from North Carolina.
UCLA's inside-outside approach has suffered as a result, the Bruins grabbing a total of one more rebound than their two smaller opponents and getting outscored by a combined 12 points in the paint.
"I don't know how we were able to rebound over them," Middle Tennessee State guard Bruce Massey said.
UCLA's interior problems have been compounded by shaky outside shooting that has allowed teams to pack the paint. The Bruins have made six of 35 three-point shots, with Tyler Lamb converting only two of 11 from beyond the arc.
Not that they have been much better around the basket. During one possession against Middle Tennessee State, guard Lazeric Jones flubbed a breakaway layup, Travis Wear missed the putback, Jerime Anderson botched another layup and a Travis Wear tip-in misfired before the Blue Raiders finally secured the ball.
Nelson's return won't solve all of the Bruins' problems considering he played in their season-opening loss to Loyola Marymount. But he will bolster a front line that also figures to benefit from the presence of sophomore center Anthony Stover, a defensive specialist who could make his season debut in Maui after being sidelined by a shoulder injury.
Slow starts are nothing new for the Bruins, who lost four of their first seven games last season before rebounding to make the NCAA tournament. Of course, UCLA went 2-6 early in the 2009-10 season and finished with a losing record.
The media's preseason pick to win the Pac-12 Conference finds itself in the unfathomable position of needing to beat Chaminade — a Division II opponent — to avert a complete early-season meltdown. That is, if a youthful team hasn't already started to fracture.
"With some of the young guys on the team, you just hope that the confidence is not broken," Murray said. "You've got guys that are trying to get confidence and believe that they can play on this level. So hopefully the Bruins can get something going to get some type of momentum to get guys believing in themselves."