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Legends Classic - UCLA v Georgia

Departed center Joshua Smith graced the cover of UCLA’s game program last night

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With the departure of junior center Joshua Smith, UCLA is down to eight scholarship players. But the news of Smith deciding to leave the program came too late for the people in charge of selecting a cover photo for the game program for Wednesday’s game against Cal State Northridge.

Smith graced the cover of the game program but it didn’t have an adverse impact on the Bruins, who whipped the Matadors 82-56.

Since the programs are no doubt printed a few weeks in advance, there’s always a good chance the player gracing the cover is no longer a current member of the team.

According to Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports Smith’s departure is the 11th since the last of UCLA’s three consecutive trips to the Final Four in 2008. To say the least these haven’t been the most stable of times for Ben Howland and his program.

But with Smith gone the Bruins had to make the move that many have been clamoring for: going small and even playing some zone. Howland did both on Wednesday night, as Jordan Adams moved into the starting lineup and the Bruins began the game in a 2-3 zone.

They also played faster, as their 77 possessions was UCLA’s second-highest total (83 in their 80-79 overtime win over UC Irvine) of the season to date. UCLA did turn the ball over 16 times against the Matadors, breaking even in turnover margin, but they also shot 53.1% from the field and 26 of their 34 field goals were assisted.

Norman Powell scored 17 points off the bench to lead the way for UCLA, but the question as to whether or not they have enough interior depth to contend in the Pac-12 remains. To be fair freshman power forward Tony Parker is still dealing with an ankle injury and played just one minute last night and wore a protective boot while on the bench (why he even played that minute is a valid question given this fact).

Once Parker’s back to full strength UCLA will be able to go with an eight-man rotation, which should help them down the road against Pac-12 heavyweights such as Arizona, Colorado and California. Whether or not the Bruins actually contend will depend on how well the players adjust to their new style, as well as whether or not Howland sticks with it.

h/t The Dagger

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Second half collapse highlights concerns regarding No. 11 UCLA

Ben Howland
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It was over. The game was over.

After a pair of Shabazz Muhammad free throws with just over 12 minutes remaining UCLA held a 51-33 lead on Cal Poly. And given the deliberate style of play that the Mustangs prefer, there surely was no way that the Bruins could lose.

But they did.

Joe Callero’s team got hot offensively, and when combined with the Bruins’ indifference on the defensive end of the floor the end result was the perfect storm that is Cal Poly’s 70-68 win at Pauley Pavilion.

The Mustangs made seven of nine three-pointers during their comeback with a Dylan Royer three tying the game at 63 with 3:23 remaining. But while many viewers may have held the belief that UCLA would find a way to salvage the win Cal Poly did not, and their composure proved to be the difference.

Following a Jordan Adams layup to tie the game at 68 UCLA guard Norman Powell made a mistake he won’t soon forget, losing track of time and score and fouling Kyle Odister. Yes, shades of what happened in this game back in 2009. Odister made both free throws and when Adams’ three-point attempt bounced off the rim as time expired the Mustangs had themselves a historic victory.

“It feels great,” Royer said to the Associated Press. “We have so much respect for this school, this program and this team. To be down [18 points] is a little discouraging, but we kept our heads up and we kept fighting. As we battled out the points and start to come back we got more confident and said, `Hey, we can do this.”‘

The majority of the stories written won’t focus on Cal Poly, however. They’ll be about a UCLA team that many thought would be OK once Shabazz Muhammad was cleared by the NCAA. Muhammad finished with 15 points and ten rebounds and Travis Wear added 14, but the same defensive issues that were apparent in their 78-70 loss to Georgetown last week were on display against the Mustangs.

Cal Poly shot 57.7% from the field and outscored UCLA in the paint 18-8 in the second half. In regards to that points in the paint discrepancy, who in the front court can Ben Howland trust right now? Josh Smith and Tony Parker combined to play just 12 minutes on Sunday night, with Travis Wear playing 34 minutes and Howland going with him at the five for long stretches (David Wear played 18 minutes).

Then there are the questions in regards to leadership and players understanding (and just as importantly accepting) their roles. The good news for UCLA is that it’s still November; they have time to figure out solutions to these issues before getting into Pac-12 play.

But do they have the “right” answers? Besides knowing that Tyler Lamb won’t be one of those solutions, it’s difficult to answer that question in the affirmative after Sunday’s result.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Unfair to rush to any judgement on UCLA after Shabazz’s first game

Legends Classic - UCLA v Georgetown
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BROOKLYN – All things considered, Shabazz Muhammad didn’t play too badly in his first game as a collegian.

He finished with 15 points on 5-10 shooting in 25 minutes of action, although a couple of those buckets came in the final minute with the outcome, a 78-70 loss to Georgetown in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, all-but decided. He only grabbed one rebound, which is concerning given his strength and athleticism, and he was no where near the player that he needs to be on the defensive end of the floor. He was a long way from good, and he certainly didn’t come close to the reputation he had built for himself coming into the game.

This wass supposed to be a top three pick, mind you, and top three picks aren’t supposed to look as consistently over-matched as Muhammad did on both ends of the floor tonight.

And Muhammad will tell you the same thing.

“I can get a lot better. I didn’t play well tonight. I didn’t play well on defense,” Muhammad told reporters after the game.

That’s understandable. This was Muhammad’s first college basketball game after spending the past six months dealing with NCAA investigations into his time as a high schooler. He suffered a high-ankle sprain that kept him out for nine weeks over the summer. He didn’t practice with the team before they went to China. He didn’t go with the team to China. The first chance he had to practice was about a month ago, and in that time he’s dealt with a shoulder injury that kept him from being able to play, lift, or work on his conditioning for half that time.

He’s out of shape, out of sync with his teammates and, quite frankly, probably rusty.

And you thought he was going to come in here and look like James Harden did in his first game with the Rockets?

“It was really exciting getting out on the court for the first time,” Muhammad said when asked how he felt about his debut. “Just finally getting the jitters out and getting comfortable playing college basketball for the first time was a good experience.”

“I’m trying to get out here and gel with my teammates for the first time. My first college game, trying to get used to playing with all these players.”

It’s not like Muhammad is a piece getting plugged into an experienced team, either. Kyle Anderson is a freshman. Larry Drew II is a transfer that is playing for the first time in 20 months. Norman Powell is starting for the first time in his college career. Jordan Adams, who has scored at least 20 points in all four games as a collegian, is also a freshman.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Bruins have been dealt a bad hand when it comes to injuries. Muhammad has already dealt with ankle and shoulder issues. Kyle Anderson missed a couple months over the summer after thumb surgery. Tony Parker didn’t play on Monday due to a back issue. Tyler Lamb hasn’t returned to the court yet after getting surgery on his knee.

In other words, Muhammad isn’t the only one that needs to gel on this team.

It’s a group that doesn’t necessarily fit together perfectly with a coach who isn’t necessarily built to handle a team with their strengths. They were shredded defensively by Georgetown’s Princeton-style offense, which is not something you typically see from a Ben Howland-coached team. They looked lost offensively against Georgetown’s zone. They didn’t run the floor well at all. The 16 offensive rebounds they collected were nice, but the 60% Georgetown shot from the floor in the second half wasn’t.

“We are a team that is very young and we got hurt defensively,” Howland said. “They shot 55% from the game, 60% for the second half. Those two stats jump out.”

I spent the preseason doing nothing but send up warning flares that UCLA had dumpster fire potential written all over them.

And while I would love to take this time to revel in the fact that I was, once again, right, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that there were some positives to take out of this game.

First and foremost, Drew looks like a different player than they one that flamed out at North Carolina. He now has 33 assists and just six turnovers in 135 minutes this season. He got in the lane and created, he found shooters on the secondary break, he got the ball to his teammates where they needed it and when they needed it, and, most importantly, he did nothing dumb to hurt them. In the end, that’s all he really needs to do.

The other thing I liked was the way Howland used Anderson in the second half. There’s no question that Anderson is one of the more unique talents in the country, but asking him to be a primary ball-handler at this level is unfair. He’s not going to be blowing by players like Otto Porter and Greg Whittington off the dribble. Where he is effective, however, is as a playmaker out of the high post. When UCLA cut Georgetown’s lead to four in the second half, it’s because Anderson got them easy shot after easy shot against a 2-3 zone.

The Wears are capable up front, Josh Smith and Tony Parker can provide muscle when need be, and Muhammad, Adams and Powell provide as much scoring punch on the wing as you’ll find anywhere in the country.

There are still plenty of pieces that need to fall into place for this group.

But if you’re a UCLA fan, now is not the time to be selling off your season tickets, and judging them too harshly off of their first game with Muhammad in the fold is unfair.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.