UCLA struggles to justify national ranking

The “overrated” chant is overdone, but for the Loyola Marymount fans who taunted UCLA with it in the waning moments of the Bruins’ season-opening 11-point loss Friday, they were merely speaking the truth.

The Bruins were overrated in September when I omitted them from my ballot for ESPN.com’s preseason top 25 poll. The Bruins were overrated in October when the coaches ranked them No. 20 and the media picked them to win the Pac-12.

After UCLA lost to a Loyola Marymount team missing its best player -- the same Loyola Marymount that lost to Middle Tennessee on Sunday -- some voters might be wondering what is going on in Westwood. They see the collection of big men Ben Howland has on the roster and share the sentiments of Cal coach Mike Montgomery, who recently said, “UCLA, you walk through the airport, and they scare the heck out of you. They’re huge. You've got to think that UCLA is going to be awfully good.”

But is it all a mirage? Look closely, and UCLA entered the season with numerous question marks that Howland could find difficult to provide the answers to even as the season progresses, and those issues were exposed by LMU at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, UCLA’s home away from home as Pauley Pavilion undergoes renovations.

If guard play is what drives good college basketball teams, the Bruins will have to improve in that department in a hurry. Point guard Lazeric Jones, the former junior college transfer, was 1-for-11 from the field in the opener after struggling through a wrist injury last season. Backup Jerime Anderson was suspended for the LMU game after pleading guilty to two misdemeanors in September, and the former top-100 recruit is seeking redemption for the off-court transgression and on-court disappointment. Shooting guard Tyler Lamb takes over the starting job coming off an unspectacular freshman season.

Howland appears committed to playing man-to-man defense, but after losing top defender Malcolm Lee and his athleticism to the NBA draft, can the Bruins effectively defend the perimeter? LMU went 10-for-15 from 3-point range and consistently pressured UCLA off the dribble. When the Bruins finished with a 14-18 record in 2010, Howland kicked himself for not switching to a zone defense earlier in the year. He has yet to shown inclination to do so again, but could be forced to at least consider the possibility after watching the game film.

"They were able to drive us all night,” Howland told reporters. “We kept getting beat on penetration.”

UCLA has four players standing 6-foot-10 and leading scorer and rebounder Reeves Nelson back for his junior season, but the Bruins will still have to prove they can play consistently. Nelson is a versatile forward, but his three attempts from 3-point range missed Friday, and the Bruins were 2-for-15 as a team from beyond the arc. Because of a lack of backcourt depth, Howland is playing David Wear out of position at small forward alongside his twin brother, Travis. Defensive-minded Anthony Stover is out with a shoulder injury.

And given the opportunity to address the conditioning level of former McDonald’s All-American Joshua Smith, Howland has consistently said the 305-pounder needs to improve in that area. The sophomore is a potential star and is a force on the block, but hasn’t managed to stay in the starting lineup because of his inability to avoid foul trouble. Even while coming off the bench against Loyola Marymount, he managed to two fouls in six first-half minutes. He finished with five points, four rebounds and three blocks in 16 minutes.

Smith compounded that uninspired effort with a tweet after the game reading, “Just lost to some straight bums lol...” He later deleted the entry and apologized, but not before coming off as immature at a time when the team is seeking a new identity.

Do Arizona, Cal, Oregon and Washington have their flaws? Certainly. But UCLA is far from being a clear favorite in the Pac-12 despite its expectations of a trip back to the NCAA tournament.

Yes, it's only one game, and there's plenty of time to grow as a team, but Howland acknowledged it a "bad loss" for a team that has suffered quite a few of them since the days of three straight Final Fours.

Before the Bruins begin play at the Maui Invitational, they have glaring problems to fix. Few might have seen a loss to LMU coming, but now it's apparent that UCLA is one shaky "top 25" team.