College Basketball Nation: Malcolm Lee

Where have you gone, Reeves Nelson?

December, 9, 2011
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Nelson/HowlandAP Photo/Danny MoloshokUCLA coach Ben Howland dismissed Reeves Nelson from the team following two recent suspensions.
Reeves Nelson wasn't always the poster child for what was wrong with UCLA -- far from it. Colorful tattoos covered his left arm, including the one representing yin and yang. As a freshman, he started two nights after getting 15 stitches following a face-first fall on a slam dunk, with coach Ben Howland likening him to Rocky Balboa. He was a fan favorite in those days.

Nelson was also a rebel for sure, but one the Bruins had thought would annoy opponents rather than themselves. He was supposed to be the next in a long line of Howland acolytes, taking on the role of the tough guy. As a sophomore, Nelson ended up leading the team in scoring and rebounding.

Friday's announcement that Nelson's career at UCLA was over following two suspensions in the span of three weeks wasn't the necessarily the easiest decision for Howland to make.

"I had a lot of hope for him," Howland said a couple of hours after informing Nelson of his dismissal. "Reeves improved a lot as a player from his freshman to sophomore year. It's very disappointing."

Here's how a profile piece on Nelson written by Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com during his freshman year began:
He had them with his first dive for a loose ball. The gnarly shiner and bloodshot right eye he picked up earlier this season when a Kansas player poked him in the eye sped the development of the love affair up.

The eclectic tattoo collection on his forearms, shoulders and chest cemented things.

The UCLA student section has fallen for freshman center Reeves Nelson in a head-over-heels, face-painting, tattoo-copying, instant-cult-hero kind of way.

"Oh man, the crowd definitely loves him," sophomore guard Malcolm Lee said. "The other night I saw people drawing that infinity [symbol] tattoo he has on his arm on themselves.

"I think it's because he's just real aggressive. He's not scared of getting hit or hitting other people. That's big for us because our shots can go in or out, but his brutality and aggression is always there, night in and night out."

But there were always signs of another side to Nelson that weren't pretty. In high school, he was suspended following an alcohol-related incident in which he was a passenger in a single-car accident in the school's parking lot. Footage of Nelson throwing the ball at teammate Brendan Lane's chest after an opposing player scored on Lane during a game surfaced on YouTube. Nelson wasn't the best of teammates and he frustrated staff members with his attitude and demeanor, but all that came long before he was suspended twice and also missed a team flight.

"In fairness to the team, there's a point where we've got to move forward and do what's best for the team," Howland said. "I really want to help and am hoping he can grow as a player that is able to fit into a team and organization that handles all the things that go with that.

"Reeves did not want to leave. He's disappointed, but he also understands that it's the final decision. This is it. We are moving forward without him."

Howland said the two best practices of the season came after Nelson was suspended the first time Nov. 14, but his dismissal might not end up being addition by subtraction. The 2-5 Bruins have plenty of other problems to deal with, including center Joshua Smith's conditioning level, spotty guard play and an increasing malaise from fans who have seen both their basketball and football programs go under .500.

In the end, Howland had to turn Nelson from Sports Illustrated cover boy to castoff.

"I didn't want to turn this into a thing where this is the focus of UCLA basketball," Howland said. "I think it will be a positive for our team because the distraction for our team has not been a positive for our team. Negativity is not a positive for our team."

UCLA struggles to justify national ranking

November, 13, 2011
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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.

[+] EnlargeUCLA head coach Ben Howland
AP Photo/Gus RuelasUCLA head coach Ben Howland has a talented roster but numerous question marks as well.
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.

Jimmer and friends resurrect hoops tonight

September, 22, 2011
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There's a basketball game on national television tonight, and Jimmer is playing in it.

For fans lulled to sleep by the NBA lockout and the lengthy college offseason, the Jimmer's All-Stars event on the BYU campus will feature the professional debuts of numerous NBA draft picks, including host Jimmer Fredette, fellow team captain Kawhi Leonard and national champion Kemba Walker.

The exhibition features numerous storylines that developed after Team Fredette coached by BYU's Dave Rose and Team Leonard coached by San Diego State's Steve Fisher conducted a draft to fill in the eight-man rosters.

Fredette and Walker, the native New Yorkers who led the nation in scoring last season, will be on opposite sides and square off for the first time.

Fredette and Leonard, whose college teams had epic showdowns last season that raised the profile of the Mountain West and resulted in a shared conference championship, will face off again.

Fredette's team includes fellow Sacramento Kings draft pick Tyler Honeycutt, whose former UCLA teammate Malcolm Lee is on the other side and has the distinction of holding Fredette to a season-low of 25 points in games BYU lost last season.

Former BYU guard Jackson Emery also returns to the Marriott Center for possibly his one and only professional game, as he'll team up with Fredette one more time after recently deciding to step away from basketball.

And for NBA fans looking to get a glimpse of first-round picks Bismack Biyombo, Chris Singleton, Tobias Harris, Nolan Smith and Kenneth Faried, here's your chance.

"The draft was a lot of fun and helped continue the buzz about the game on Thursday," Fredette said in a statement. "I'm excited about my team and I know Kawhi feels like he has a great squad as well. Personally, I'm really looking forward to playing one final game with Jackson in front of our home fans. We had so many great memories during our career at BYU and it will be fun to enjoy one last game night experience together at the Marriott Center."

The game originally scheduled in Salt Lake City as part as what was to have been a two-game exhibition series was canceled, so tonight's the night to tune in to BYUtv.

Basketball is being played again, and that's reason enough for excitement.

UCLA's No. 1 class no guarantee of success

September, 6, 2011
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UCLA coach Ben Howland told Andy Katz that guard Jerime Anderson will miss a few games after being arrested in July in connection with the theft of a laptop. While that means Anderson is expected to be sidelined for more than the team's regular-season opener, as had been previously announced, it also puts the senior on track for possible reinstatement by the time the Bruins leave for Hawaii to play in the championship round of the Maui Invitational and open with Chaminade.

That will be big for a team that is short on guards. But discussion of the suspension status of the last remaining member of the nation's top-ranked recruiting class of 2008 heading into the senior year was far from what was expected.

When UCLA brought in five top-50 recruits coming off a third straight Final Four appearance, there were expectations that more big-time success was on the way for Howland.

Thus far, those recruits have combined to win two NCAA tournament games, and the two McDonald's All-Americans in the group -- Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee -- ended up becoming NBA draft picks.

But Holiday left after one so-so season, and Lee perhaps bolted too early and became a second-round pick rather than bolster a Bruins roster for this coming season.

Drew Gordon clashed with Howland and left the program midseason before transferring to New Mexico. J'mison Morgan was dismissed from the team and went to Baylor.

Anderson had been a disappointment for UCLA because of his inability to hold a starting job, and it's his off-the-court incident that generated bad offseason headlines.

It was a long time ago when the five-player class looked so cheerful the day it posed for pictures for a feature story in UCLA Magazine called "Hoop Dreams."
When asked a serious question about team goals, however, all five freshmen adamantly agree: Nothing short of a Pac-10 championship, followed by an NCAA national championship, will do.

"That's the goal here at UCLA, period, for any sport to win the national championship, you know? It's not just us," Anderson says. "I want to see that happen for the seniors, who've been there three times in a row. Definitely, that's what I want to see."

Now it will be left up to Anderson, who after serving his suspension will get one final chance at achieving what the group originally set out to do.

Malcolm Lee leaves UCLA question marks

April, 13, 2011
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UCLA coach Ben Howland gets his players to the NBA, and that's one of the selling points when it comes to recruiting future Bruins. So when UCLA players enter early into the NBA draft, Howland has to feel happy for them even if it does leave him wondering at the same time what might have been.

UCLA will lose both guard Malcolm Lee and forward Tyler Honeycutt, the second- and third-leading scorers from this season's team that came within a few possessions of getting to the Sweet 16. Howland had heard the super-early preseason projections that a team with the two of them might have been among the nation's elite, and he now knows those expectations won't be there anymore.

"I really believe that if we had both of them back we would have had a chance to challenge, no question, in that category," Howland said.

With Lee and Honeycutt leaving, UCLA will need other players to step up. The Bruins should have a strong frontcourt with leading scorer Reeves Nelson expected to return along with center Joshua Smith. With Smith and North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear, UCLA will have three 6-foot-10 players to give them a size advantage over most teams.

What Howland will need to emerge is consistent production from the backcourt. Point guard Lazeric Jones should be better after an injury-plagued year that saw him get his first Division I season under his belt. Tyler Lamb is a wing who will get a chance to earn more minutes, and Norman Powell is a freshman who is expected to get early playing time. UCLA is also expected to sign a guard in junior college transfer De'End Parker.

UCLA will miss Lee's defensive presence. While his offensive skills could have used another year of seasoning, Howland thinks that he's as good of a defender as anyone in the draft, and that will be his greatest NBA skill. Lee's decision to forgo his senior season shouldn't have come as that big of a surprise, not after he let it be known two weeks ago that his AAU coach was in the process of interviewing agents.

Honeycutt's departure was an expected one even though he might have needed another year to boost his stock. Howland thinks he'll be a first-round pick, but as former UCLA and NBA player Tracy Murray described Honeycutt to the Daily Bruin, "He’s a carpenter with a bunch of tools, but he hasn't built nothing."

The Bruins should still challenge for a Pac-12 title. Washington and USC lose top players to the NBA, and Arizona's Derrick Williams and Washington State's Klay Thompson could depart as well.

The hope for Howland is that he still has the pieces to make UCLA an elite team.

Ben Howland optimistic on UCLA's future

March, 28, 2011
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The NBA draft could end up stealing plenty of talent from the Pac-12. USC's Nikola Vucevic declared last week he was signing with an agent, as did UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt today. Several players must still make decisions, including Arizona's Derrick Williams, Washington State's Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto, and UCLA's Malcolm Lee and Reeves Nelson.

And when it all shakes out, UCLA could easily be the favorite going into next season. The Bruins lose their best athlete in Honeycutt, but won't miss his 100 turnovers and could return most of their roster to go along with transfers David and Travis Wear.

"Would we be a better team if (Honeycutt) came back? Absolutely," said coach Ben Howland, whose team was without a senior this season. "One hundred percent.

"I'm still very optimistic. I think we'll be a very, very good team."

Howland said the team could still play with three guards, using David Wear as a small forward. And the interior presence provided by the Wear twins along with freshman center Joshua Smith -- all standing 6-foot-10 -- is a nice advantage to have.

Should Nelson and Lee stay in school, UCLA would return its top two scorers along with point guard Lazeric Jones, who now has a Division I season under his belt.

UCLA will have plenty of challengers in the Pac-12. Arizona will really miss Williams should he leave for the NBA, but would still return most of a team that includes point guard Lamont Jones and bring in a top recruiting class coming off an Elite Eight appearance. Washington should still have Isaiah Thomas and an emerging star in Terrence Ross. Cal brings back freshman of the year Allen Crabbe, and Washington State would be strong with Thompson returning to school.

Losing Honeycutt isn't ideal, but it appears the Bruins will manage. And after some more draft decisions get made, they could really find themselves in a good spot.
TAMPA, Fla. -- In the type of thriller that is responsible for the term March Madness, UCLA nearly blew a 23-point second-half lead, but held off a fury of Michigan State 3-pointers and won, 78-76, in a second round NCAA tournament game at the St. Pete Times forum.

No. 7-seeded UCLA (23-10) had an 18-point halftime lead and stretched it to 64-41 with 8:35 to play, but Michigan State got hot from the outside and made six 3-point baskets in the final 6:13. Meanwhile, UCLA had troubles from the free-throw line, making only 3 of 12 foul shots in the final 1:31 as the No. 10-seeded Spartans closed a 75-66 deficit to 77-76 with 4.4 seconds to play.

UCLA guard Malcolm Lee made one of two free throws then forced a turnover on the ensuing possession and UCLA advanced.

Turning point: It might not have seemed all that relevant given how close the game ended up, but Joshua Smith's hook shot with 8:56 remaining gave UCLA an 11-point lead. The Bruins have not lost a game this season when taking a double-digit lead at any point. They are now 21-0 in such games.

Player of the game: Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA. He played one of his most complete games of the season with 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots. Perhaps Honeycutt was motivated by some pregame comments made by Michigan State's Durrell Summers. His huge rebound on a missed Spartans 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining and UCLA up 77-73 all but clinched the game. Michigan State's Draymond Green also deserves mention for a triple-double of 23 points, 11 rebounds and 1o assists in the losing effort.

Key stat: Kalin Lucas, Michigan State's leading scorer for the season had only 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting. Lucas was averaging 17.2 points this season and 20 points over the past 14 games, but was held scoreless until there was 7:44 left in the game. He was the Big Ten player of the year in 2009 and a key contributor to the Spartans' Final Four runs in each of the past two seasons, but was a non-factor for much of Thursday thanks to the tenacious defense played on him by Lee, a Pac-10 all-defensive team selection.

Miscellaneous: The battle of the boards was always going to be a deciding factor in this game and UCLA's 39-36 edge on the glass certainly was. Michigan State had outrebounded opponents by an average of 35-30 over the season and UCLA held a 37-32 average rebounding edge this season.

What’s next: UCLA will face No. 2-seeded Florida on Saturday in a rematch of the 2006 national championship and '07 national semifinal games. Florida, a 79-52 winner over UC Santa Barbara, won both those games and won consecutive NCAA championships. This time a spot in the Sweet 16 is on the line. Game time is approximately 11:45 a.m. Pacific.



Arizona and UCLA back on top of the Pac-10

February, 25, 2011
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Not that the Pac-10 is what it once was, but a sign of improvement is that longtime rivals Arizona and UCLA are back atop the conference.

UCLA is one game behind Arizona heading into Saturday's game at Pauley Pavilion. Where the two teams are in the standings is far cry from last season. The Wildcats saw their 25-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances snapped in Sean Miller's first season while the Bruins slumped to a 14-18 record and only their third losing season since 1948.

It is a boon to the conference's prestige that two of its most successful programs are once again in a position to win the regular-season title.

"When you look at those two schools' tradition, and people associate the Pac-10 with those schools, I think people always look year in and year out to see how they're doing," said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant. "You look at the ACC, and I think people will look and see how North Carolina and Duke are doing. And if they're having down years, people can assume that maybe the ACC is down, and that isn't always necessarily the case.

"I think their tradition, their profile, what they've done, their body of work over the last 30 years gets people's attention when they're doing well."

Both teams are young, but filled with talent. Derrick Williams is having as good of a year for the Wildcats as anyone while he carries the load and bolsters his status as a potential first-round pick in this year's draft. And at UCLA, there is plenty of pro potential on the roster with Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee and Joshua Smith.

The immediate future looks good as well, with Arizona bringing in a top recruiting class next season and UCLA adding David Wear and Travis Wear, the twin transfers from North Carolina.

First comes Saturday's game, and with a win, Arizona can clinch at least a share of the title.

"This is what you play for, to play against a great team like Arizona," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

Youthful UCLA just keeps getting better

February, 18, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Given a chance to praise his team for winning 10 of its past 11 games, UCLA coach Ben Howland said the Bruins were improving and then countered with a compliment -- a backhanded one.

“I know we’re great for television,” Howland mused. “This is a great team for TV ratings and keeping the fans involved for the sponsors all the way ‘til the very end.”

In surviving Stanford on the road with a 69-65 win, UCLA once again showed off its propensity to let opponents back into the game. But a Bruins team -- one that is without a single senior -- ultimately did not break and managed to maintain second place in the Pac-10 standings.

Howland might have a few more gray hairs because of it, but young UCLA is growing up before his eyes.

A month after needing to claw its way back against Stanford at home, the Bruins never let the Cardinal have a lead. Aside from Jeremy Green draining three 3-pointers in the final minute and a half to make the game a little too close for comfort, the 19-7 Bruins controlled the game and looked very much unlike last year’s much-maligned squad that not only missed the NCAA tournament, but also went 14-18.

The Bruins start two sophomores, a freshman and a junior college transfer at point guard in Lazeric Jones -- who plays with wrapping over his sprained left wrist -- and team has gotten better with time.

[+] EnlargeUCLA's Jerime Anderson and Tyler Honeycutt
AP Photo/Paul SakumaJerime Anderson, left, and Tyler Honeycutt (23) walked off winners at Stanford on Thursday. The Bruins have won 10 of their past 11 games.
Reeves Nelson, who had 18 points and seven rebounds, might play out of control sometimes, but continues to be reliably productive. Tyler Honeycutt, who hit four 3-pointers and scored 16 points overall, might take an ill-advised shot every now and then, but continues to show off a skill set that makes him a future pro.

And 6-foot-10, 305-pound freshman center Joshua Smith, who had 13 points and nine rebounds while coming off the bench in order to stay out of foul trouble, has gradually learned to effectively throw his weight around and make a meaningful impact inside.

“He's like two guys out there and takes up a lot of lane when he's in,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins told reporters. “It reminds me when I played against Shaquille O'Neal. He's different than any other different post player you face in college.”

At one point 3-4 after a loss at home to Montana, UCLA is now in a position where Smith is talking about winning the Pac-10 outright.

Games against first-place Arizona and a road game against preseason favorite Washington loom, but during this stretch, the team has taken care of business at home and is now focused a road sweep in Northern California that would make those games all the more important.

“Now we play more together,” Smith said. “Early in the season when we made mistakes, guys were yelling at each other.

“We’ve grown up a lot. Every game, we’re learning that much more about ourselves.”

After the game Howland brought up the positives of each player before then mentioning areas of improvement. The 35-26 rebounding edge against Stanford was welcomed, and the defensive effort of Malcolm Lee was noted as usual, but Howland also knows the team must cut down on turnovers of the unforced variety.

“We have to continue to grow and get better at it,” Howland said.

Should the growth and winning continue, it’ll be that much more of a reason for television viewers -- especially those in March -- to stay tuned to what's brewing at UCLA.

Bruins ruin Steve Lavin's homecoming

February, 5, 2011
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LOS ANGELES -- Steve Lavin returned to UCLA on Saturday and was met with what can best be described as casual indifference.

No boos, no signs, no catcalls.

“Just another day at Pauley,’’ as Lavin aptly described it.

But the team that Lavin brought with him -- a team from the beastly Big East -- with all the muscle and might that being a Big East member implies?

That mattered to some folks, some very important folks.

“Any time an East Coast team comes to the West Coast, they try to bully you around,’’ UCLA forward Reeves Nelson said. “We don’t have any little sissies on this team. The term we used was they were going to try to punk us and we weren’t having that a little bit.’’

No, the Bruins took St. John’s first punch and then proceeded to return with some body blows of their own, gutting out the 66-59 victory at Pauley Pavilion.

[+] EnlargeReeves Nelson
Chris Williams/Icon SMIReeves Nelson had 17 rebounds and a clutch 3-pointer in UCLA's victory over St. John's.
The loss ruined Lavin’s coming home party and more, put a dent into the Red Storm’s run. Lavin and his staff sported sneakers with their suits for the game, even though the Coaches vs. Cancer awareness push was over. The reason? They were 2-0 with sneakers on, with the signature win against Duke and a hard-earned win against Rutgers.

Now the sneakers will come off and so will the gloves. St. John’s is rewarded for its country-crisscrossing sojourn with a home game against Connecticut on Thursday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

This game won’t kill the Red Storm in the selection committee’s eyes. How many teams are willing to hopscotch the country in the middle of the arduous conference season? Not many. But a win would have been a huge boost to the St. John dossier.

“We thought this was a great chance to get a quality win against a good opponent,’’ said guard Dwight Hardy, who practically carried the Red Storm on his shoulders with 32 points. “But I don’t think many people play the sort of schedule that we played. It’s a shame we couldn’t get the win.’’

It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. This game was something of an aesthetic mess, featuring 38 fouls and 32 turnovers. UCLA attempted 41 free throws (33 in the second half) and St. John's countered with just seven. The Red Storm once led by as many as nine and the Bruins by as many as 10, but with all the sloppy play and stops, no one could find an offensive groove.

So naturally the game ended on an impossibly difficult offensive play.

With just three seconds on the shot clock and 6.7 on the game clock, Nelson took the inbounds pass and somehow swished an in-the-corner, off-balance 3-pointer with a hand in his face.

Prior to that, the Bruins had made only two of their first 11 3s.

“The play was for Malcolm [Lee] or Josh [Smith]," said Nelson. "But I told Jerime [Anderson] that if they weren’t open, I’d pop out and get a shot.’’

He did and the Bruins scored a critical non-conference victory. UCLA is 16-7 but its résumé is pretty thin.

There was a big win against BYU early and not much else to hang your hat on out of conference. More problematic is the watered down Pac-10 won’t do much to bolster the Bruins’ middling RPI of 47.

“This was like an NCAA Tournament game,’’ UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “They allowed us to play. It was very physical, the kind of game where you’re not going to get any calls. But it’s big for us because of where we are. It’s February 5.’’

And the fact is, the product that is UCLA basketball on Feb. 5 is a heckuva lot better than the product that was UCLA basketball back on Dec. 5.

That was the day that the Bruins lost to Montana, the spoiled cherry on top of a four-game skid that had everyone wondering if Howland had jumped the shark at Westwood.

Since then the Bruins have won 13 of 16, 7 of their past 8, three in a row and it’s not out of the question that UCLA could sneak up and win the Pac-10.

“That was always one of our goals,’’ Smith said.

In a city where the spotlights shine the brightest, UCLA has managed to do the impossible: get better right underneath everyone’s nose. This was always going to take time. The Bruins don’t have a senior on their roster. But patience is a lost virtue in sports. With each passing season, the glimmer of those three consecutive Final Four appearances has faded.

Now it seems that patience is being rewarded.

They are not yet playing the sort of stingy defense that Howland is known for, but the Bruins are getting better. In those 13 victories, they’ve held six opponents under 60 points and eight under 70.

Smith, a freshman, has learned to assert his big body in the low post. Where once he would have settled for layups, he is now throwing down dunks with authority. The undersized Red Storm could do nothing to contain his girth or his strength as he finished with 19 points and eight boards.

The naysayers will say that the Bruins merely beat a middle-of-the-pack Big East team on their homecourt.

Those whose opinions matter, however, the ones that put on the uniforms see it a little differently.

The East Coast bully wound up getting pushed around.

Ben Howland believes UW should be ranked

December, 30, 2010
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Pac-10 preseason favorite Washington exited the national rankings weeks ago, and the conference hasn't seen one of its teams in the polls since then.

The way UCLA coach Ben Howland sees it, the Huskies merely lost to three current top-20 teams away from home in Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas A&M, and the Huskies deserve more national respect.

"I find it really, really surprising they're not nationally ranked," Howland said on the eve of Washington playing at UCLA. "They should be ranked. I don't understand it."

The Huskies could easily climb back into the rankings with a win on Friday that would mark only their third-ever sweep of the Los Angeles schools. Gutting out a 73-67 overtime victory at USC on Wednesday was crucial, proving they could win a close game in a road environment (though Huskies fans were loud in chanting "just like football" at Trojans fans).

Matthew Bryan-Amaning, after some early-season struggle,s came through with 18 points, and freshman Terrence Ross also had 18 in a confidence-building game for him on a night when USC was focused on stopping Isaiah Thomas.

UCLA is looking to go 2-0 in the Pac-10 as well after containing Washington State's Klay Thompson. The Bruins will now ask Malcolm Lee try to shut down Thomas.

That match-up along with the Bruins' ability to stop the Huskies' transition offense should determine which team wins and takes first place in the Pac-10.

And also whether or not the conference is represented when the polls come out next week.

UCLA looked 'ready to give up'

December, 6, 2010
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Montana point guard Will Cherry came face-to-face with UCLA last night during the Grizzlies' 66-57 win at Pauley Pavilion and loved what he saw.

It was a discombobulated Bruins team, looking like it had final exams to take the next day and had stayed out too late the night before attending the rivalry football game.

"Stop after stop, layup after layup, foul after foul; it looked like they were ready to give up," Cherry told The Missoulian. "There was kind of some bickering. When we were making shots, we could see it in their faces that they were ready to break. That's what told us to keep our feet on their necks."

Not exactly the look to his team coach Ben Howland was going for coming off a one-point loss at Kansas. The Bruins shot 31 percent from the field, and after the loss, team captain Malcolm Lee conceded the team might have looked past Montana, an NCAA tournament team out of the Big Sky last season.

From ESPN Los Angeles:
"I think we took this team too lightly," said UCLA guard Malcolm Lee, who led the Bruins with 13 points. "I think it was kind of like a hidden feeling that we almost beat Kansas and then two days later we're playing Montana. Not taking nothing from them, but we just played a No. 4 ranked team and we just came out slow and lazy.

But this UCLA team is not good enough to think it can succeed without maximum effort every night. The Bruins must use this as a learning experience going forward.

"I think our sense of urgency is going to be a little bit more," Lee said "We can't take no team lightly I guess now. Our first three losses were really good teams. I'm not saying nothing against Montana, but now we can't take no team lightly. That's embedded in our minds."

NCAA: Refs made right call on Lee foul

December, 3, 2010
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Official Doug Sirmons made the right foul call on UCLA’s Malcolm Lee with 0.7 seconds left that put Kansas’ Mario Little at the free-throw line for a game-winning free throw Thursday night in Lawrence, according to the NCAA’s head of officiating.

Little converted the free throw to give Kansas a 77-76 win over the Bruins, continuing a 64-home game win streak. Lee and Little were going for the ball when Lee reached into Little. UCLA had just tied the game at the other end on Tyler Honeycutt’s 3-pointer with five seconds remaining. UCLA coach Ben Howland said after the game, “that was a really, really a poor way to end the game on a call. Just for anybody that hasn’t seen it. It’s a loose ball, both 23, Little and Malcolm Lee are putting their hand on the ball at the same time, with 0.9 seconds left.’’

“The refs reacted properly,’’ said John Adams, the head of the NCAA’s officiating on Friday. Adams added that Sirmons was an experienced official who worked an NCAA regional last season. “The only argument you can make is whether or not it was a foul. It’s a foul. The Kansas kid has control of the ball. It’s incredibly unfortunate to end the game like that. But I’ve looked at the tape this morning and Doug called the foul like he’s supposed to.’’

Adams said he reviewed the tape over the phone with Big 12 coordinator of officials, Curtis Shaw, and they all agreed it was the appropriate call.

Howland said after the game, “Normally you wouldn’t make that kind of call at that point in the game unless it was very obvious. And from what I saw, it’s very disappointing to end the game on that note.’’

Adams said officials can’t consider how much time is left when making a call.

“It’s dangerous to read into every play in the game to see time, score and circumstances,’’ Adams said. “We do not ask [officials] to play God. If you do that, then you’re asking them to play God. If the kid has possession and gets fouled, it’s a foul. It’s incredibly unfortunate that it was at the expiration of time. In the old days you would walk away (because time appeared to have expired). But in this time we have the video to check on the monitor to see if there was time left on the clock [and there was].’’

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Guard trio carries Nova over UCLA

November, 25, 2010
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NEW YORK -- Scottie Reynolds got Villanova back to a Final Four with an epic, game-ending layup to beat Pitt in the 2009 Elite Eight.

The shot will forever be etched in Nova lore.

But Reynolds' influence on the Wildcats is now gone and it shows.

A trio of Villanova guards -- Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns -- don’t mean any disrespect by this, but they feel they leaned too much on Reynolds last season. They looked for him to constantly bail them out of a bad situation.

Now they’ve all moved on.

“Ever since Scotty’s freshman year, he had the ball in his hands,’’ Stokes said. “The team relied on Scotty. He was one of the greatest players in Villanova history. I don’t want to take anything away from him, but we can all score. It doesn’t matter who has the ball. Coach [Jay Wright] feels comfortable with either me, Maalik or Fish with the ball in his hands.’’

[+] EnlargeCorey Fisher
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesCorey Fisher scored 26 points in the win over UCLA.
And so the baton has been passed from Reynolds to the trio of Stokes, Fisher and Wayns. The Villanova guards dominated the ball in an 82-70 NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal victory over UCLA Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats will play Tennessee in Friday's championship. The three guards combined for 45 of the Wildcats’ 62 shots. They made 17. And didn’t hurt that they were a combined 22-of-24 at the free throw line. Fisher finished with 26 points, Wayns with 19 and Stokes with 16.

Nova has Mouphtaou Yarou inside (13 points and 16 boards vs. UCLA) and if a Villanova student code of conduct committee gives suspended freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston a chance to play sometime this season (he’s facing simple assault charges for a punch on another Villanova student at a party earlier this month), then there will be even more balance. Wright said earlier Wednesday that the committee could hear Pinkston’s case next week. He is allowed to practice with the team but can’t represent the university and sit on the bench.

Seeing Pinkston in practice Wednesday, it was clear that he would have a major impact on this squad at both ends of the court. But instead of waiting on the legal case, the team will wait on the school's verdict since this was a student-on-student crime.

For now and the foreseeable future, Nova will be driven by its guards, much like it was on that 2006 Elite Eight team led by Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry.

“That’s our offense,’’ Wayns said. “That’s the way coach Wright tells us to play. We’re not where those guys were [Foye, Ray and Lowry] since they’re all pros. But we’re aggressive and we’re giving our team the best chance to win. Last year, if things got bad we turned to Scottie. We leaned on Scottie. Now it doesn’t matter since any of us can make a play.’’

UCLA’s trio of Malcolm Lee, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson had their moments, but weren’t in the same level on a consistent basis as Nova’s guards.

The Wildcats don't have the one star like Connecticut’s Kemba Walker. A more appropriate comparison might be the tandem of Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs of Pitt or Georgetown’s Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark.

“We’ve had more time together,’’ Fisher said of his senior classmate Stokes. “Maalik played with us last year too. We had time to watch Scottie and learn from him and we’ve had time to gel.’’

What Villanova has this season -- something that was lost at times last season in falling flat against Saint Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- is a cohesion among the guards.

“We’ve got great chemistry,’’ Stokes said. “We’re always together off the court and it translates on the court. It should be like this the whole year.’’

UCLA is being quick and in a hurry

October, 26, 2010
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On the eve of the only UCLA practice on campus that is open to the media, coach Ben Howland made mention of the team wanting his offense to push the ball up the court.

Then during practice, the Daily Bruin heard Howland calling out instructions that might have sounded like a foreign language to a team more accustomed to playing his grind-it-out style.
"Push it!" the coach called out. "Way to run it! Transition on every possession, make or miss!"

Could it be? UCLA isn't just promising to pick up the pace, but actually going through with it?

According to the Los Angeles Times, Howland insisted his fast-paced offense wasn't merely just for show during the open practice.
"Once we get it we have to get it out of there in a hurry, whether it's out of the basket, which hopefully will be less and more off of missed shots," Howland said.

The hope is that a quickened pace will lead to easier baskets, particularly with improved guard play and power forward Reeves Nelson's enhanced ability to run the floor.

"It fits us real well, just with our guard personnel, our athletes," shooting guard Malcolm Lee said, "and I think Coach notices."

If the style does indeed change during the season, it would add a certain amount of pizazz to an offense that, under Howland, has primarily relied on limiting turnovers and winding down the shot clock.

Pushing the ball doesn't necessarily win games, but losing with a slowdown-style wasn't exactly fun for UCLA fans last season.

And if the Bruins' push for change does it lead to wins with a more athletic lineup this season?

Then the rest of the Pac-10 had better be ready to run right along with them.

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