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.
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