LOS ANGELES -- Look, UCLA's shorthanded basketball team isn't going to make a lot of excuses for its current two-game losing streak.
This is a team full of youngsters, but, as we're learning, it isn't a team of whiners. No one would blame the Bruins for adding pouting to their huffing and puffing after Saturday's 77-63 home loss to No. 25 Cincinnati, considering it was yet another game with, basically, an eight-man rotation.
But there was senior guard Aaron Holiday, who played 37 minutes (barely one minute more than his season average), shrugging off the limited bodies and high-volume court time after a game in which the Bruins mostly looked three steps behind.
"We've been doing this since the beginning of the year," said Holiday, who led the Bruins (7-3) with 17 points Saturday. "We're used to it now."
They are, but they have to be dying inside. The Bearcats (9-2) were physical, with a ton of spring in their step. The Bruins looked haggard at times, particularly during the latter part of the first half, and with five of their rotation eight players seeing their first collegiate minutes this season, you can see fatigue setting in at times without the quality depth to work with.
UCLA says looks can be deceiving, but it's tough to imagine this team making any sort of tournament run with the shape of its eight-man squad.
Suspended freshmen forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill (both 6-foot-10) would relieve some of the pressure up front, an area in which the Bruins were dominated by the Bearcats on Saturday. LiAngelo Ball, who left the team before his suspension was even lifted, would've helped spread some more minutes out in the Bruins' backcourt.
This is a team that saw seven of its rotation eight players hit double-digit minutes in Saturday's first half, compared to five of Cincinnati's 11. While the Bruins erupted for 40 points in the second half (reaching their first-half point total of 23 before the seven-minute mark), UCLA's inability to play with any sort of rhythm down the stretch of the first half doomed it and ignited Cincinnati.
During the final 6 minutes, 41 seconds of the first half, Cincinnati outpaced the Bruins with an 18-2 run. During that span, UCLA was of 0-for-8 shooting and turned the ball over four times.
The Bruins also had to start their offense from the outside in, which appeared to get center Thomas Welsh, a focal point for them, out of sorts. Cincinnati's double-teaming of the senior in the first half left him with one shot -- a 3-pointer -- and zero points in the first frame. He finished with just four points on seven shots.
This is where the Bruins sorely miss their depth. The Bearcats owned the paint, outscoring UCLA 30-20 there. Forwards Gary Clark and Kyle Washington outscored UCLA's bigs of Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman 29-7. Welsh and Goloman had as many points as fouls.
So it's clear the freshmen suspensions are weighing on the Bruins and it isn't even Christmas yet. Coach Steve Alford on Saturday said he doesn't know when the school will set a concrete length for their suspensions, but he must be counting the seconds until then.
For now, Alford is focused on what he has. The Bruins have made some improvements on defense, but there's a trust he needs his team to have with and without the ball. He needs his youngsters to accelerate their game maturity.
This is more of a mental thing, the Bruins keep telling us. This is about comfort and young guys maturing in-game and during the season.
"It's about understanding who we are," Alford said. "You went from one day having 11 in your rotation to having eight. That doesn't happen a lot in college basketball, and I think this group ... I just can't thank them enough."
This season has certainly been a shock to UCLA's system. Last season, the Bruins played -- and played well -- with mainly an eight-man rotation, but it was significantly more talented than this one. You had the future No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, Lonzo Ball, running things, and Holiday, who is averaging a team-high 17.7 points per game, was the sixth man.
That team was older, had more poise and owned nation's fastest-paced offense.
This season, the Bruins are running on fumes with a younger team that has more than half of its players figuring out this college basketball thing for the first time. UCLA just played its first true road game last Saturday, walking away with a stunning 78-69 overtime loss at Michigan. And it has had all sorts of distractions, starting with the shoplifting arrests of Riley, Hill and LiAngelo Ball in China.
The Bruins should be commended for their resolve, but the season does them no favors going forward. In a week, they'll be in New Orleans to play ever-improving No. 8 Kentucky. Days later, conference play starts.
Yes, the Pac-12 has had a horrid nonconference season, but we all know everything gets a little harder in league play.
UCLA lost to a good team Saturday, and this was a great test for an outfit that hadn't seen defense or rebounding like that all season (UCLA tied Cincinnati with 35 boards). But now comes the part where the few veterans have to pick this young team up and get it conditioned for an even longer second-half run.
"I know we just lost twice, but you just keep telling them we're going to be alright," Holiday said. "We're a great team. We haven't shown it yet, obviously, but we're going to be a great team."