Playing home games away from Pauley Pavilion might actually have helped bring the Bruins closer together.
LOS ANGELES -- This season was never going to be easy for the UCLA Bruins’ basketball team, but it wasn’t supposed to be this hard, either.
Playing a season of games away from campus as Pauley Pavilion receives a makeover put an instant hurdle in front of the Bruins even before the season began, and the bumps seemed to get bigger once the games started.
The Bruins dropped like a rock from the national rankings, booted their top returning player off the team and struggled to find chemistry among an influx of new players as they became this season’s embodiment of overrated.
In the six weeks since basketball season opened, the Bruins went from NCAA tournament sleeper and Pac-12 Conference favorites to national title non-factor and mid-major pushover.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion: The Bruins began to pull out of their tailspin. The calculated gamble of dismissing Reeves Nelson from the team paid off in the form of a five-game win streak. The addition of a zone defense helped compensate for some shortcomings, and UCLA has begun to show signs that it can live up to its preseason No. 17 ranking and challenge for the Pac-12 title, as the Bruins were picked to do.
This week will tell a great deal about whether the Bruins are, indeed, a legitimate conference title contender, as they head to the Bay Area to open Pac-12 play at Stanford and California, two of the conference’s top teams through nonconference play.
But for a team that began the season with embarrassing losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee en route to a 1-4 record, merely getting back into the conversation is a minor victory.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s most pleasing in how we’ve improved, is we’ve handled the adversity by bouncing back pretty well,” coach Ben Howland said. “We’d like to get rid of the adversity … but adversity always makes you better when you handle it the right way.”
Some say the obstacles UCLA has overcome have shaped the Bruins into a more cohesive and close-knit unit. They were relying on Nelson’s production but have had to raise their level of play to fill that void.
They were expected to roll through much of their preconference schedule but rallied around each other when that didn’t happen. They have been playing games at the Sports Arena and the Honda Center but have grown closer as a result of spending so much time together in hotels.
“I think everything that has happened has played a vital role in how our team has shaped,” guard Tyler Lamb said. “Definitely I think our team has become a closer team. Everybody has embraced each other. Nobody is being quiet any more. When something needs to be said by a teammate, it’s being said. And nobody is taking it with a grain of salt. It’s ‘we understand where you are coming from’ and it’s on to the next play.”
The situation with Nelson was the biggest distraction the Bruins had to overcome. He led the team last season with 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds but was suspended after the first game of the season for behavior problems and then dismissed from the team three weeks later as the issues continued.
But UCLA also had problems on the court. Their defense was brutal early, as four of their first seven opponents shot better than 50 percent. Howland implemented a zone to better suit his team’s big but slow makeup, and four consecutive opponents have shot below 40 percent.
And the chemistry issues began to settle as new players -- such as David and Travis Wear, transfers from North Carolina, and freshman Norman Powell -- began to figure out their roles and Howland began using more guard-heavy lineups.
“Honestly, I can tell you in the last five games I think the losses kind of helped us,” center Joshua Smith said. “We’ve been in games where we’ve been down. We all know each other’s identity. We all know what we have to do to help the team win and we all come together and just said, hey, no matter what the score is, we can’t quit.”
The early-season struggles, which included double-digit losses in five of UCLA’s first seven games, mostly served as a wake-up call for a team that expected to coast to the Pac-12 title after entering the season ranked No. 17 and picked by the media to win the conference.
“I think the biggest difference would be just realizing that we could get beat by any team if we don’t come out and play well, play together and play hard,” Lamb said. “I’d say our heads were in the clouds. We had that ranking and I think we overlooked opponents and that definitely got to our heads. But the adversity that we’ve been through, I think our team has responded to it.”
As the wins have begun to pile up and UCLA has gotten to 7-5 after a 2-5 start, the confidence of the team is growing stronger. Nobody is happy with a 7-5 record at this point, but considering where the team was when December began, the Bruins have to accept where they are and look ahead.
“We’re all surprised,” Smith said. “If you would have asked me before the season if we would be 7-5 before Pac-12, I would say no, I don’t believe you.
“We had a lot of high hopes … and obviously we haven’t played up to par but right now we’re on a good road. We’re in a good groove and we’re just looking to ride this out.”
In some ways, getting through what UCLA has been through this season might make the Bruins an even more formidable team as they sneak up on opponents who might overlook them.
“I think our team has a lot of grit,” guard Jerime Anderson said. “I think we have a lot of heart and teams really don’t give us the credit. … I think we had to get through some bumps in the road, but right now things are riding a little smoother going into Pac-12.
“I really do believe our team is ready right now. We’re ready to make a lot of noise in the Pac-12 and try to win. We’re at UCLA to win and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”