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Summer Buzz: UCLA Bruins

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? UCLA. Up next? Washington.

The good news for UCLA? There's nowhere to go but up.

It's a testament to UCLA coach Ben Howland's ability that last season's 14-18 performance was so shockingly bad. After all, every program has its occasional slides. But even last fall, as the Bruins entered the season with a young and unproven roster, most expected them to hover on the margins of the top 25 for much of the season. They wouldn't be a Final Four team -- like the three that Howland took from 2006-2008, a remarkable stretch by any measure -- but maybe they could still compete for a Pac-10 title.

Not so much. In an especially weak Pac-10, UCLA somehow managed to struggle. The Bruins finished in a tie for fifth place with an 8-10 conference record. Finishing fifth in an uncharacteristically bad season shows just how awful the 2009-10 Pac-10 truly was. UCLA's season was punctuated by early, tone-setting losses -- to Cal-State Fullerton, Portland (a 74-47 loss, by the way), and Long Beach State -- and, later, by defections and dismissals. Talented but frustrating sophomore Drew Gordon transferred to New Mexico; disappointing 6-foot-10 center J'mison Morgan was dismissed for team rules violations.

All of which adds up to a tough pill for Westwood die-hards to swallow. It leaves UCLA with that most un-UCLA goal for 2010-11: rebuilding. But rebuild the Bruins must.

There is plenty of on-court ugliness to rebuild. Let's start with, well, everything. Defensively, Howland's typically stout teams gave way to a No. 138-ranked adjusted defensive efficiency last season; the notoriously man-to-man-prone Howland actually resorted to zone for a while there. The bad news: Most of the players from last season's lackluster effort return in 2010-11. The good news? They'll be one year older and -- theoretically, anyway -- one year smarter on the defensive end.

Offensively, the Bruins weren't much better, scoring 1.058 adjusted points per possession, good for No. 108 in Division I. There was some good news here, too. The Bruins shot pretty well, posting a team effective field goal percentage of 52.6, the 39th-best mark in the country. Unfortunately, that bit of skill was drowned out by sloppy play everywhere else: UCLA was among the worst teams in the country on the offensive glass (No. 270, to be exact), rarely got to the free throw line (No. 202 in free throw rate) and turned the ball over far too much (21.6 percent of their possessions, good for No. 240 in the country). It doesn't matter how well you shoot when you're that bad at everything else.

Much of the Bruins' improvement will hinge on whether Howland's recruiting class can figure these things out quickly enough to make a positive impact. The most talented of Howland's newcomers is 6-foot-9 power forward Josh Smith, a near-300-pounder with surprisingly soft hands, quick feet, and and intuitive knack for the game. Smith, the No. 20 overall player in ESPNU's class of 2010, is currently working out three times a day with UCLA training staff in an attempt to get him in the best shape of his life. If Smith can improve the Bruins' offensive rebounding even marginally, that'll be contribution enough.

Likewise, shooting guard Tyler Lamb, the No. 28-ranked player in 2010 class, will be expected to contribute right away. At 6-foot-4, Lamb adds depth and polish to the Bruins backcourt. If Lamb can help relieve some pressure off would-be shooting guard Malcolm Lee -- forced to handle point guard responsibilities after Jrue Holiday left the program for the NBA earlier than expected -- he can send a positive ripple effect far beyond his own statistical contributions.

That said, though Howland's recruiting class is good, it's not sudden turnaround-good. The Bruins are, in all likelihood, facing another rebuilding season. In 2011, North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear will become eligible; last year's crop of confused sophomores will be 2011's experienced seniors, and if Howland can work some 2011 recruiting mojo, he'll have another fresh batch of talent to add to a balanced, skilled team.

That's in 2011. In 2010, the Bruins need to focus on the little things: Improving man-to-man defense, attacking the offensive glass, preventing turnovers, and so on. Wins and losses will matter far less than just getting better. If Ben Howland has a whiteboard (of course he does), he should be writing that down in permanent marker. Just get better.

UCLA fans aren't accustomed, historically or under Ben Howland, to rebuilding seasons. Given last season's disaster, that's what 2010-11 is going to be. If another 2009-10 happens, this could take a while. But if the Bruins embrace it, they could be back sooner than most.