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Bruins still searching after Bay Area losses

12/31/2011

BERKELEY, Calif. -- And so the search continues for the UCLA basketball team.

A team looking for consistency found little of it during a Bay Area trip that featured losses to Stanford and California. A team that opened conference play hoping to find an identity returns home still without one.

A disheartening 85-69 loss to California Saturday at Haas Pavilion completed a Bay Area lost weekend for UCLA, and the two-game trip showcased the many unanswered questions the Bruins still have. This was a litmus test of a trip for UCLA, and the Bruins proved only that they are perfectly neutral.

The Bruins (7-7, 0-2) head home at exactly .500 and without a victory over a team of any major significance. A valiant effort in a 60-59 loss to Stanford followed by a dismal defensive performance Saturday against California showed just how close the Bruins are to turning the proverbial corner while at the same time displaying just how far they have to go before they can call themselves a legitimate conference title contender.

"This is just the beginning of the Pac-12 so we can’t get down," guard Lazeric Jones said. "We still have a lot more games to go. We can’t get down about two games, we just have to bounce back with some wins. Eventually it’ll come around."

History is on UCLA's side -- sort of. The last time the Bruins started 0-2 in conference was 1987-88. They started 0-3 that season, but rallied to finish 12-6 and tied for second place. They also started conference 0-3 in 1981-82 and finished second at 14-4.

But neither of those teams made it to the NCAA tournament, which is always goal number one at UCLA. Walt Hazzard was fired for the offense after the 1987-88 season. Larry Farmer was fired after the 1983-84 season, when UCLA missed the tournament for the second time in three seasons.

It's unlikely that coach Ben Howland would meet that fate, but you have to imagine the credit he built up from three consecutive Final Four appearances will be running low if the Bruins don't get things turned around in a hurry. If UCLA doesn't make the NCAA tournament it would be the second time in three years that has happened.

"It’s tough," Howland said of the 0-2 start.

This is a team that had huge expectations entering this season, starting off ranked No. 17 in the nation and getting picked to win the Pac-12 title, but so far the Bruins have looked little like a team deserving of those accolades.

Their front court was lauded as among the most formidable in the nation with 6-10 twins David and Travis Wear boasting a front line that included a rising star at center in Joshua Smith and an all-conference forward in Reeves Nelson.

The Wear twins have proven wildly inconsistent on the offensive end and are a defensive liability. Smith has failed to live up to expectations because of conditioning issues and an inability to handle double teams in the post. Nelson was kicked off the team because of continuing behavioral issues.

So with the front court failing to live up to expectations, the backcourt has picked up some of the slack. Jones and Tyler Lamb have been the two most reliable payers, but both have been up and down as they try to do too much at times and the team has no true go-to clutch player.

And defensively, the Bruins have been brilliant at times while at others they have been downright dismal. Both of those teams showed up this weekend. Stanford shot only 34.5 percent against UCLA -- the fifth consecutive opponent that had been below 40 percent against UCLA.

But California ended that streak in emphatic fashion by shooting 65.4 against the Bruins, exploiting slow-footed UCLA's inability to stay in front of offensive players, close out on shooters and stay with players cutting toward the basket.

"Time after time after time, they scored too easily," Howland said. "Whether it was man or zone, they were scoring too easily. We were slow."

They are also insecure in who they want to be defensively. Howland prefers the tough man-to-man style that brought him so much success at UCLA, but the current team lacks the speed and athleticism to play that style on a consistent basis. It's much better suited to a zone, but Howland has alternated zone and man defenses, creating even more confusion around UCLA's identity.

"We just want to use whatever is going to work," Jones said. "Coach definitely has the right answers defensively. Sometimes we just have mental lapses. We just have to be tougher mentally."

The good news for UCLA is that there is still plenty of time to bounce back and contend for the conference race. And the other good news is that the Bruins are well-versed in the art of bouncing back. They began the season 1-4, but bounced back to 7-5 before running into Stanford and Cal.

They are down about getting swept in their conference openers, but no one has given up hope.

"I think we’ll be able to bounce back," Lamb said. "We started the season very slow and we bounced back a bit, but I mean with this team I just think it has a lot to do with how we respond. Nobody is happy in there at all so I know we’re going to go back and work on our weak spots."

The road doesn't get any easier. UCLA plays Arizona, a perennial conference title contender, Thursday at the Honda Center. Also looming is a trip to Oregon State and Oregon Jan. 19-21. The next three weeks have turned into playoff-like games for the Bruins, who will be treading on very thin ice if they lose many more games.

"I think every game from this point is a must-win game,' Lamb said. "It’s going to be very hard but it’s something that has to be done of we want to turn the season around. I’m pretty sure everybody in that locker room wants to turn the season around so we’re going to have to do whatever it takes."

They should start by finding some consistency. And an identity.