LOS ANGELES -- More than two-thirds of the UCLA basketball season is over and the Bruins still have more questions than answers.
A 75-71 loss to crosstown rival USC on Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion was the latest head-scratcher for these Bruins, who have shown the moxie to compete against some of the nation's best teams, but also the tendency to throw in a stinker.
The trouble is, this is two consecutive stinkers, following a 78-60 drubbing at Arizona State on Saturday and now UCLA (16-6, 6-3 Pac-12) has lost consecutive games for the first time this season as well as three of its past four since a 10-game win streak.
Once again, UCLA lost the rebounding battle in a big way as USC (9-13, 4-5) out-boarded the Bruins, 44-36. That makes it a 98-69 deficit over the past two games since the Bruins turned in their best overall performance of the season in a victory at Arizona less than a week ago.
The lackluster effort since that 84-73 victory over the Wildcats raises serious questions about UCLA's toughness, desire and inability to believe its own hype. Those were some of the same issues that plagued the Bruins before they ran off 10 wins in a row starting in early December and this late in the season, it's beginning to feel as if they can't be corrected.
"We've got some soul-searching to do to fight our way back," coach Ben Howland said.
If the Bruins don't, athletic director Dan Guerrero might want to start doing some coach searching. A loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is one thing, but losing to the Trojans on your home court is an unforgivable sin around Westwood.
And this loss came against a USC team with a losing record and one struggling so badly that it fired its coach two weeks ago. And this was a UCLA team that brought in the nation's No. 1 ranked recruiting class and was supposed to make a Pac-12 title run and some noise in the national championship race come March.
"This loss hurts because it's a loss and a game we thought we should have gone out there and won," point guard Larry Drew II said. "For the most part, I don't think guys, for whatever reason may be, were all the way into the game on the defensive end and that's disappointing."
It's a recurring and frustrating theme this season with these Bruins. It's a young team, filled with talented freshmen, but it's one that seems to need adversity and doubters for it to thrive. The win over Arizona, for instance, came right after a loss to Oregon. The 10-game win streak followed a stretch of three losses in five games.
Now, it appears, the team can't handle success. Take a 10-game win streak into a home game against Oregon and the Bruins lose. Knock off a top-10 team on the road in Tucson and the Bruins follow with consecutive losses -- one to a team that is a borderline NCAA tournament team and one that has a losing record.
"We can be really, really good at times and we can be really, really bad at times," Drew said.
The bad Bruins Wednesday and Saturday were on the offensive end of the court. UCLA has used jump shooting as its calling card for most of the season, but shot 38.2 percent against USC after a season-low 34.7 against Arizona State.
The Bruins shot a miserable 33.3 percent in the first half against USC and were at 30.9 percent when they trailed, 52-37 with about 13 minutes left in regulation. They finally got hot, but it was too little too late.
The offensive breakdowns the past two games have been a result of players going into hero mode instead of running the offense as designed.
"Obviously, we have the talent to come back and overcome any kind of obstacle like that, but why are we down in the first place?" Drew said. "We shouldn't be down. We should play that hard from the jump and we have to figure that out and as a team we have to understand that and that’s the only way we’re going to get better."
Mostly, however, the Bruins simply need to toughen up if they are ever going to play to their potential on a consistent basis. This is a team that seems to get complacent and satisfied with good performances. It's a team that seems to think it will win just because it has UCLA written on its jersey, has a couple of good wins and is playing in storied Pauley Pavilion.
"We can't just expect that because we're at home we're going to win," Howland said. "We've got to show up and we've got to be really, really be tough."
If they don't, things are going to be tough on the Bruins the rest of the season. And for Howland in the offseason.