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Déjà vu all over again for UCLA?

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Ben Howland can’t take much more of this.

UCLA’s miserable 2009-10 season – 14-18 overall, 8-10 in the Pac-10 and losses to the likes of Cal State-Fullerton, Portland and Long Beach State – should’ve been a hiccup. The Bruins had myriad injuries, underwhelming talent and rarely displayed the nasty defense Howland’s teams showcased during his Final Four run of 2006-2008.

So what’s changed? Howland added a pair of heralded recruits (Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb) and the roster is finally healthy.

And still can’t avoid embarrassing losses.

Sunday’s 66-57 setback to Montana shouldn’t have happened. Not at home. Not after the way UCLA played during Thursday’s last-second loss to Kansas. And certainly not against an average Big Sky team. (And to come on a night when cross-town rival USC thumps Texas? Ouch. It’s not sitting well with Bruins fans.)

“The way we played, yeah (it reminded us of last year),” Malcolm Lee told the L.A. Daily News. “Our capabilities, we could’ve played way better. I think we took this team just too lightly. Especially coming off a three-game losing streak. I think it was a hidden feeling that we almost beat Kansas.”

UCLA scored just 28 points in the first half. It made just 31.3 percent of its shots, mostly because it missed nearly 20 layups. The defense disappeared (Montana shot 52 percent from the field) and Tyler Honeycutt, who couldn’t miss against Kansas, connected on just 3 of 12 shots.

“It’s early, but it’s a bad loss, no question,” Howland told the paper. “We have to control our future by having better practices. It’s frustrating that it’s now always a given. This was a nightmare deal.”

Thing is, this feels like another hiccup. The Bruins’ three previous losses were to Villanova, VCU and Kansas, all of which are NCAA tournament teams. They play faster than usual (through seven games, they get about three more possessions than in previous seasons under Howland) and the defense is starting to resemble its old self. Things should work out.

Except … the terrific on-ball defenders Howland used to have aren’t around anymore. Their point guards (Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson) stink. Lee’s a nice complementary player, but not a great option as a scoring guard. Smith killed Kansas’ frontline, but was irrelevant against Montana.

By season’s end, UCLA will probably have 20 wins, but only because the Pac-10 is a good way to boost one’s overall record. Even if the Bruins make the Big Dance, they’re a lock to lose in the first round.

That’s not good enough in UCLA. Howland’s Final Four run undoubtedly earned him another season with the Bruins, but it’ll be one without any room for error.

If he lasts that long.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller.

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.