Lack of hustle, focus, athleticism has Howland rethinking strategy

LOS ANGELES -- This isn’t exactly what Shabazz Muhammad had in mind.

Nor is it what anyone around the UCLA Bruins basketball program envisioned after coach Ben Howland signed Muhammad and three others in a heralded freshman class that was supposed to resurrect a muddling program.

The No. 11 Bruins have hardly impressed so far this season, playing only one game that would be considered any good despite an early-season schedule littered with supposed win-padding fodder.

Nobody bothered to tell Cal Poly San Luis Obispo they were on that list as the Mustangs shocked UCLA 70-68 on Sunday night at Pauley Pavilion.

Cal Poly (2-2) erased an 18-point second-half deficit and embarrassed the Bruins in the home debut of Muhammad, who had sat out the previous three home games while the NCAA investigated his eligibility.

His return last week in New York was supposed to ease the minds of Bruins fans, who had seen their team look less than impressive in the early going, especially when it needed overtime to defeat UC Irvine without Muhammad. But UCLA is now 1-2 with Muhammad and hasn’t looked any better than it did before he joined the lineup.

This is a slow, sluggish team that plays with no fire or energy. It’s a team Howland acknowledges is “not super athletic” and is still working out the kinks associated with trying to mix four high-level freshmen with the returning veterans.

“Obviously, it’s concerning and we realize we have a long way to go,” forward Travis Wear said. “It’s scary to think about because we’re coming up to conference in a little while and we need to buckle down and start bringing it in practice every day and carrying it over into games and realizing that anybody can beat us and that we have to give it 100 percent every single night or else this is going to happen.”

The key to beating UCLA seems obvious now. Opponents simply need to spread the floor offensively and create one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. The Bruins can’t defend it, especially when Howland clings to a man-to-man defense, as he has done in all but one game this season.

But the team looks disheveled on offense, too. After opening an 18-point lead with 12:20 to play, the Bruins kept trying to push the tempo, looking for fast-break opportunities and flashy plays instead of grinding out possessions.

“We looked out of synch out there,” Muhammad said. “Guys weren’t familiar with passes guys were giving others.

“I think it was all around not a really good effort for us.”

It was almost as if the Bruins thought they could just coast to the finish after opening a 51-33 lead with a little more than 12 minutes to play. You almost got the sense that they thought Cal Poly would fold just because they were playing at Pauley Pavilion against mighty UCLA.

And that’s kind of been the story of this season. UCLA’s recruiting class, ranked No. 1 in the country, brought a lot of attention to the team and was impressive enough to have some pundits projecting the Bruins as a Final Four team.

Maybe they started believing their own hype, because it sure seems like a team that feels it can merely walk on the floor and win games just with its presence. The team plays with very little sense of urgency, shows a disturbing lack of hustle and appears to lack on-court chemistry.

Cal Poly, a middle-of-the-pack Big West team, had as many rebounds as UCLA on Sunday, outscored the Bruins 28-16 in the paint and had 12 second-chance points to UCLA’s six. The Mustangs had eight steals, while UCLA had only four.

Those are hustle stats and indicate that UCLA simply wasn’t playing hard, especially against a team the Bruins should have no trouble beating.

“We just have to buckle down and want to rebound,” Muhammad said. “We didn’t have any hard-working intensity out there in rebounding, and it really took a toll on us tonight.”

He later criticized his team’s defensive effort and intimated that a lack of effort in practice was creeping in to on-court performance.

“We have to go harder in practice,” Muhammad said. “The stuff that transfers from practice comes in the game. Tonight we just didn’t really play hard on defense. If we want to win we really have to change that. It was disappointing.”

Focus is also an issue. The most glaring example came toward the end of the game, when Norman Powell inexplicably fouled Cal Poly’s Kyle Odister on purpose with the game tied and 14 seconds remaining. Odister made a pair of free throws that ended up representing the final margin of victory.

“He didn’t know what the score was,” Howland said. “We were down two, talking about it during the timeout. We were going to foul if we were down, but, with the game tied, obviously that was a critical mistake to foul with the game tied and 14 seconds to go.”

Howland suggested that he was ready to head back to the drawing board. He delivered the news earlier in the day that junior Tyler Lamb was going to transfer, and that leaves the Bruins with nine scholarship players.

That fact and the exposed lack of athleticism have him reluctantly considering using a zone defense more.

“We’re going to have to look at all of our options,” he said.

The good news, Muhammad said, is that it’s still early in the season. There is still plenty of time to fix the issues that ail the Bruins. Muhammad said he’s confident that will happen.

“It’s a lot of new pieces,” he said. “We just have to learn how to jell. It’s early in the season right now, so we’re still working out the kinks and we’re going to get better.”

If they don’t, it’s going to be one, long season.