Even after UCLA signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, I had doubts that were masked by the program’s potential.
The additions of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams suppressed my concerns. So I bought stock in UCLA and I slotted the Bruins as a top-10 team in ESPN.com’s initial preseason poll. They had to get better, I figured. Too much talent to repeat the woes of 2011-12.
And then, UC-Irvine nearly upset the former powerhouse in overtime. Young players need time to click with veterans, right?
And then, the Bruins lost to Georgetown. C’mon, man. It was Muhammad’s first game.
And then, they fell to Cal Poly 70-68 after leading by 18 points with 11:53 to play on Sunday night. The game ended when the Bruins put the Mustangs on the free throw line in the closing seconds of a tie game. Well, even the best teams lose and wait a minute. Huh?
It was an indefensible collapse against a program that’s lost to both Fresno State and TCU this season. Yet, it’s reminiscent of the Bruins teams that have all fallen short of expectations since the Final Four trifecta from 2006-08.
The latter teams all finished in the top five of defensive efficiency. Ben Howland hasn’t had a squad that’s even cracked the top-30 since that run.
The Bruins’ defensive lapses helped Cal Poly recover from a 51-33 hole midway through the second half on Sunday. Those mishaps extended UCLA’s streak of mental fragility. The Bruins fell apart. Again. It’s becoming a familiar theme for the storied program that missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years last season.
On Sunday, the Bruins allowed 37 points in the final 12 minutes -- after giving up just 33 in the first 28. In that stretch, Cal Poly made 13 of 19 shots while UCLA missed 14 of 19.
And it all ended in confusion. Sophomore Norman Powell lunged at Kyle Odister with 14 seconds to play in a tied game. Powell apparently believed that his team was still trailing.
That was certainly the most critical gaffe of the evening but not the only one. The Bruins did what the Bruins have done too often in recent seasons. They showcased the execution that’s seemingly elevated their ceiling just before the roof caved into those uncertain expectations.
They have pieces. Muhammad has played well for a guy who missed most of the preseason and the early portion of the regular season due to injury and an NCAA inquiry. But the addition hasn’t changed the culture of a team that’s failed to get stops when it’s needed them and fizzled under pressure.
While Howland has new faces, he’s still counting on the same veterans who couldn’t stop last season’s downward spiral. And he also has to rely on freshmen who love to score but haven’t attained the defensive discipline they’ll need to make a dent in a competitive Pac-12.
There’s too much talent on the roster to assume that UCLA won’t figure it out in the coming months. But the Bruins are a mess right now.
The "Kyle Anderson is a point guard" experiment has stalled. Joshua Smith's weight still limits his impact. The Bruins’ shot selection is poor and disorganized. And despite the infusion of future NBA draft picks, they’re not edgy enough to beat elite teams.
Or mid-level Big West teams.