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Commitment issues seen as cause of UCLA's early-season woes

Conditioning efforts of Joshua Smith, troubles of Reeves Nelson and ineffectiveness of Lazeric Jones have contributed to Bruins' worst start in 24 years. Coach Ben Howland is making adjustments.

November 24, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Last season, center Joshua Smith and power forward Reeves Nelson had plenty to celebrate, but a 1-4 start to this season has dampened spirits at UCLA.
Last season, center Joshua Smith and power forward Reeves Nelson had plenty… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Lahaina, Hawaii -- Changes in defensive schemes and player rotations may not be enough.

For UCLA to put a season already adrift back on course, the Bruins might need a renewed commitment from a few wayward players.

"They've got some guys that I think need to really take a look at themselves and decide whether they're in this for the long haul or not, and I don't say that lightly because a number of those guys are," ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said after watching the Bruins lose two of three games in the Maui Invitational, with the victory coming against Division II Chaminade.

"I mean, I saw some guys that really fought and some others that were not all there. No team can win like that."

Bilas pointed to senior guard Jerime Anderson leaving the Lahaina Civic Center court in tears after UCLA's 79-63 loss to Michigan on Wednesday as a sign of the type of character the Bruins (1-4) needed to reverse their worst start in 24 years.

But Bilas questioned the conditioning efforts of center Joshua Smith and said Reeves Nelson's suspensions that sidelined the forward for 1 1/2 games have hurt a frontcourt that has failed to measure up to lofty preseason expectations.

"I expected that Smith was going to come back more prepared than last year; he's less prepared," Bilas said of the 6-foot-10, 315-pound sophomore, who had 12 points but six turnovers against the Wolverines. "He was a net loss with the turnovers, the buckets he was giving up because he really couldn't keep up defensively. It negated every point that he scored."

UCLA Coach Ben Howland reiterated his concerns about Smith's stamina after the game, saying the center "has just got to keep working to get himself in better condition." Howland said he called a timeout during one second-half run just to give Smith a breather.

Rest might be hard to come by in practice over the next few weeks for a team in need of an overhaul. The Bruins have repeatedly gotten off to slow starts, falling behind in the first half of each game and trailing at the midpoint in four of five games.

UCLA has made 29.7% of its 18 three-point shots per game, prompting Howland to say his team is "probably" shooting too much from beyond the arc.

Defensively, the Bruins have been beaten off the dribble and slow to close out on perimeter shooters, a big reason opponents have made 51.4% of their three-point shots and are shooting 51% overall.

As his team prepares to play Pepperdine on Monday at the Sports Arena, Howland said he would pack in his defense in an attempt to make things more difficult for opponents that have enjoyed uncontested layups and long-range jumpers.

Changes in playing time are already afoot. Anderson has played more minutes than point guard Lazeric Jones in each of the last two games as a result of Jones' foul trouble and ineffectiveness; he is shooting 24.5% and has made three of 18 (16.7%) three-point shots.

UCLA's worst start since the 1987-88 team dropped four of its first five games on the way to a 16-14 season left the Bruins with a Ratings Percentage Index of 275 out of 344 Division I schools, according to independent expert Jerry Palm.

Athletic Director Dan Guerrero declined to comment Thursday, saying through a school spokesman that he preferred to wait until the end of the nonconference schedule to gauge the state of the program.

Bilas said the Bruins, whose losses have all been by double digits, needed to show they could be competitive before worrying about whether they could rebound to make the NCAA tournament. And that could start, Bilas said, with players listening to their coach.

"I've known Ben Howland a long time — that guy's the real thing and truly an outstanding coach, so I don't think this thing is a long-term problem," Bilas said. "They've got a great recruiting class coming in, so whoever's not on the bus, the bus will be leaving and it will go somewhere good, I know that."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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