Oregon trip exposes UCLA's lack of mental toughness

UCLA's Joshua Smith was one of many players who simply couldn't get in done in Oregon this weekend. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

EUGENE, Ore. -- This one will sting for quite some time.

It's not just that UCLA lost to Oregon, 75-68, Saturday at Matthew Knight Arena, and it's not even that the Bruins blew a 13-point halftime lead in doing so. The most troubling thing about this loss is what is says about the mental toughness of this season's UCLA team.

Tough teams win on the road, but UCLA has not shown the ability to do that. Tough teams don't get rattled, but UCLA did exactly that for the second consecutive game. Tough teams play complete games, but UCLA can't seem to string together a consistent 40-minute effort on both ends of the floor. Tough teams fight and will themselves to win, but that doesn't seem to be a part of the team's makeup.

What it all adds up to is a team that is struggling to stay afloat in a weak Pac-12 conference even when the conference leaders can't seem to figure out how to stay on top. The Bruins (10-9, 3-4) were swept on this Oregon swing and leave the Beaver State in seventh place in the Pac-12.

Yes, the Bruins, picked to win the Pac-12 in a preseason poll, are in seventh place and going nowhere fast and they have nobody but themselves to blame. That the Bruins had a 37-24 lead on the road against one of the conference's better teams says a lot about their ability to compete in the conference. That UCLA fell apart in the second half shows how far the Bruins have to go to be able to compete.

"We’ve got to be mentally tougher," coach Ben Howland said.

UCLA came on this Oregon trip needing a sweep to rekindle thoughts of winning the Pac-12 title, but now must refocus on simply trying not to embarrass itself. The last time the Bruins were swept on the Oregon trip was 2004 and it has happened only six times in 48 years, so that tells you how close they are to irrelevancy.

The NCAA tournament seems a far-fetched pipe dream at this point and a berth in the second-tier NIT tournament is also fading fast. Thankfully the CIT and CBI might still come a knocking, but any type of postseason for the Bruins will require a turnaround in the mental toughness and maturity department.

"I think it’s pretty devastating right now to lose after you have a 13-point lead," senior guard Jerime Anderson said. "That’s where we need to become a better team and grow as a team and be able to come out on top and get this win. We were spotted 13 points in 20 minutes and we weren’t able to come out with that."

The turning point in the game is easy to spot: When UCLA jumped out to an early lead, Oregon started running a full-court press. The Bruins wilted under the pressure by committing a few costly turnovers and by speeding up their tempo and pace.

The same thing happened to the same team two days earlier in an 87-84 loss at Oregon State, where a rattled Bruins team lacked the discipline to stay in control, got into a run-and-gun fest and fell flat.

"We need to go back and work on our press offense and focus on taking our time and not having the other team force us into a frantic pace," Travis Wear said. "That really isn’t our game."

It's no secret that this isn't the most talented team UCLA has ever had, but it's a team that should be able to contend in a weak Pac-12 conference. The players frequently talk about their unity and camaraderie, so that's clearly not the issue.

The inability to win on the road is puzzling. UCLA played close with Stanford, Oregon State and Oregon, but were unable to close out those games. So what exactly has kept the Bruins from getting over that hump?

"I’m not exactly sure what we’re lacking," guard Lazeric Jones said. "We showed in the first half that we can be a really good defensive team and play as a team. We did a really good job in the first half. In the second half, we had some breakdowns."

The Bruins might do themselves a favor and look at the team that just beat them for some answers. Oregon has won three out of four road games this season and has won seven games by eight points or fewer, including a two-point win at Arizona and a three-point victory over USC. Oregon forward E.J. Singler said his the Ducks never felt as if they were out of the game on Saturday.

"We have a passion for the game and an eagerness to win," he said. "We have a lot of seniors who are sick of not closing out games so we want to change that."

It's that type of killer instinct, the closer mentality and grit, that UCLA seems to be missing. They don't have the sense of urgency to play at a high level from opening tip to the final buzzer. Jones has it, but probably doesn't have the necessary skills to will a team to victory. He had 14 points Saturday, but made only 6-of-16 shots. Jones is shooting only 40 percent from the field in conference games and often tries to do too much.

Certainly Joshua Smith doesn't have it. He is supposed to be the team's dominant player, but he pretty much pulled a no-show in Oregon, combining for 16 points, eight rebounds and seven personal fouls in 31 minutes in the two losses. His body language was awful in both games. He looked dazed and as if he didn't want to be there.

Against Oregon, he played like someone who had mentally checked out before the opening tip and finished with six points, three rebounds and four turnovers in 12 minutes.

"He did not have a particularly good game," Howland said.

The Wear twins are playing much better, but they also seem to lack the competitive fire and leadership qualities necessary to will a team to victory. The Bruins are playing hard for the most part. They compete, they hustle and they sweat. They are coachable and well-coached and have enough talent to win the Pac-12 conference.

There's just always been a little something missing with this team, a little something off that made you wonder if it had the chops to compete for the conference title. Oregon exposed Saturday that the Bruins do not and now the realization is beginning to set in that the Bruins will be playing out the season as a middle-of-the-pack squad hoping to pull off a miracle in the Pac-12 tournament.

And that's why this loss will sting for quite some time.