LOS ANGELES -- So far this season, the UCLA Bruins are far from the team basketball aficionados expected, but they insist they’re close to getting things back on track.
The Bruins (5-3) began the season at No. 13 in the Associated Press rankings and rose to No. 11 before plummeting out of the rankings after a loss to the Cal Poly Mustangs. A loss Saturday to the No. 17 San Diego State Aztecs indicated the Bruins still are not quite a top-25 team. They say that doesn't mean they can't turn things around and get back into the poll.
"I think we can be a very good team," coach Ben Howland said. "We’ve got a lot of basketball to be played."
The big issue is so many new faces on the floor. Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are playing major minutes in their first seasons in college basketball. Point guard Larry Drew II is in his first year with the Bruins after transferring from North Carolina, and sophomore Norman Powell has become a key piece for the team after serving as a role player last season.
Howland said it is testing his patience trying to mix so many new parts.
"A team with youth, you’ve got to be patient," Howland said. "Everything is new to them. Things that you take for granted sometimes are things that freshmen might not know. You can’t take anything for granted."
The fan base lacks that kind of patience. Already there are numerous calls for Howland's job, suggesting he has lost the team and he can't relate well enough to the players to keep them around. Tyler Lamb and Joshua Smith already have left the team this season.
Plus, these freshmen were supposed to be different. They were the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country and were expected to succeed right away, much like Kentucky's freshman-laden roster did last season in winning the national championship. It's pretty clear, however, that no other freshman class is quite on that level, including that of UCLA.
"Kentucky was great last year winning the national championship and everything, but we’re no Kentucky," Powell said. "We don’t have Anthony Davis. We don’t have Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. We don’t have those type of players. Shabazz and Kyle are great players, but Shabazz isn’t Anthony Davis. Nobody is Anthony Davis."
Kentucky is having its own problems trying to rebuild with mostly freshmen and now is 4-3. Clearly, trying to win with freshmen isn't something you want to gamble on too often. Still, the Bruins feel like they can turn the season in the right direction over the next few weeks. It's about steady progress at this point.
Powell pointed to the super team assembled by the Miami Heat that failed to win the NBA title in its first season before reaching the top last season.
"We have the players; it’s going to happen," Powell said. "It’s going to take a process. It’s going to take everybody learning what we need to do and how everybody plays. Once we get that down, hopefully we’ll get that down before conference play and we’ll be able to jell during the Pac-12."
But in the "now" culture we live in, fans want to see UCLA succeed right away. They don't want to see losses to teams such as Cal Poly and San Diego State -- schools that at one time were dwarfed by the shadow of UCLA basketball in Southern California. The Bruins say they can't afford to get caught up in all of that.
Sure, the season hasn't started exactly the way it was projected, but the players are intent on making something out of a season that has been all but written off by many outsiders.
"We all believe what we can do," Powell said. "We’re not listening to what other people are saying about us and what is being said about us. We know the hype was there. We know we were supposed to be a top-10 team with the recruiting class coming in, but we know everything was not going to be done right then and there."