New-look Bruins adjusting on the fly

LOS ANGELES -- The first game in the post-Joshua Smith era went much better than expected.

The UCLA Bruins did not look at all like a team in turmoil as they trounced the Cal State Northridge Matadors 82-56 on Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion, just hours after Smith left the team and became the second player in four days to depart the Bruins.

UCLA showed an energy level and intensity that had been conspicuously absent the past couple of games, especially in a shocking loss to the Cal Poly Mustangs on Sunday, and played a new zone defense that proved quite effective throughout the game.

Now the Bruins must answer the question of whether they can do it on a consistent basis and against a higher level of competition. They’ll get the chance Saturday, when they face the No. 23 San Diego State Aztecs in the Wooden Classic at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Without Smith, navigating the rest of the season might be difficult. Not only is he a force in the low post who was tabbed as an important piece to UCLA’s puzzle this season, his departure -- along with that of Tyler Lamb on Sunday -- leaves UCLA with only eight scholarship players.

Depth figures to become an issue as the season wears on, especially if injuries crop up.

“We’ll miss a big-man presence inside and some experience,” coach Ben Howland said. “Josh had played two years. Those two things are probably the two biggest things. I was surprised. I really was surprised. Shocked. I didn’t think that was going to happen.”

Howland said Smith left because of personal reasons. It could be that Smith simply didn’t have the desire to compete. Watching him and his body language during the past year or so certainly indicated he wasn’t having much fun.

In the short term, Smith’s departure hampers UCLA’s chances of making a run at a conference title or deep into the NCAA tournament. Howland and the players say they still have the ability to do those things, however.

“I think our identity might change a little bit,” forward Travis Wear said. “But we still have a lot of talented pieces and guys who believe we can win games, and I think we can go far this year and do a lot of great things.”

In the big picture, having two players depart in four days indicates a bigger issue, perhaps such as team chemistry issues or even an inability for Howland to connect with his players.

The loss of Smith and Lamb, coupled with the Bruins’ poor play this season, have turned up the heat on Howland’s seat. Athletic director Dan Guerrero can’t be overjoyed with the direction of the program, especially after a turmoil-riddled last season, during which Sports Illustrated painted an unflattering picture of the way Howland was running the program.

Guerrero was not available for comment after the Bruins' win.

UCLA has had 11 players transfer over the past four years and the current roster has no players who have made it through more than 40 games with Howland at the helm. Still, they say there are no issues with the coach.

“I think Ben is the perfect guy for this team,” said freshman Shabazz Muhammad.

Wear said the timing of the recent transfers is merely a coincidence and that he has felt no locker room rifts on the team.

“We have a lot of new pieces and stuff, but as a group we all collectively like each other,” he said. “We hang out together all the time off the court. Tyler and Josh just made personal decisions that they would be better off going elsewhere and starting something else. But our chemistry was fine.

“Our cohesiveness and stuff like that, we all got along.”

Now the Bruins must keep winning the way they did Wednesday. The team played with the type of fire that indicated the light finally turned on about what it takes to win at this level. With a roster filled with four freshmen and a senior transfer in his first season on the team, it was always going to take some time to click.

But the noticeable lack of effort early on was disturbing and unacceptable. The onus is on the players to pick it up, but it starts at the top and Howland is well aware of that.

“We’re going to work extremely hard with the group we have,” Howland said. “I’m going to coach my tail off here to help this team reach its potential.”