Bruins not exactly what was advertised

December, 1, 2012
12/01/12
11:31
PM PT
Shabaxz MuhammadKelvin Kuo/US PresswireShabazz Muhammad and the other UCLA freshman are being asked to carry a heavy load right off.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's time to hit the reset button on the expectations for UCLA's basketball season.

A 78-69 loss to San Diego State on Saturday night at the Honda Center confirmed what has been pretty obvious throughout the early part of the schedule: The Bruins have a long way to go if they are going to make any kind of run this season.

They are young and still figuring out how to play with one another. Coach Ben Howland primarily used a zone defense for only the second time this season and the players are still figuring that out, too.

The sky-high expectations for this team entering the season were apparently premature. A recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the nation was supposed to lift the team to national title contender status, but the Bruins have now lost two games to teams from their home state.

It's time to recognize that the Bruins are a developing squad with on-court chemistry that has yet to sort itself out, and players who are still figuring out the college game.

"I'd say I'm not really comfortable out there still," said Shabazz Muhammad, the top recruit in this class. "I'm still working through it and it's a learning process so I'm going to learn through it."

Muhammad had perhaps his best game of the season Saturday with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting and showed signs of the killer instinct that made him one of the nation's most coveted scorers out of high school last season. But he's not nearly the dominant player anyone expected him to be. Not yet, anyway.

Kyle Anderson, the other prize freshman in the class, was 2-for-8 shooting Saturday and is now shooting 32.7 percent for the season. He has been solid as a rebounder, but his 28-17 assist-to-turnover ratio is not yet what was advertised when he was dubbed the No. 5 recruit in the nation last year.

Tony Parker, another freshman, sat out Saturday because of an ankle injury and he hasn't played more than three minutes in the last five games because of injuries.

Only Jordan Adams, the least heralded of the four freshmen, has lived up to his billing. He had a team-high 23 points Saturday and leads the Bruins in scoring with 17.8 points per game.

"There's a lot of learning still that we're doing," Howland said.

Preseason prognosticators pegged UCLA as a potential Final Four team, but it seems it might have been a bit unfair to heap such high expectations on this group. Sure, Kentucky made a national title run last year with a freshman-laden roster but that was a once-in-a-generation deal.

The teams that are flourishing this season are veteran squads. Look at Kentucky now. The Wildcats, against loaded with freshmen, have already lost as many games this season as they did all of last season.

Perhaps it was just hope that this freshman class would pull UCLA out of the doldrums the program has suffered in recent seasons. After missing the NCAA tournament in two of the last three seasons, the Bruins needed some kind of hope.

But Steve Fisher, coach of the veteran San Diego State team that defeated UCLA Saturday, spoke from experience about the type of expectations thrust upon UCLA this season. Fisher coached Michigan when the "Fab Five" class revolutionized college basketball recruiting.

That team went 11-7 in the Big Ten and finished third in the conference before making a run to the national-title game. Certainly the Bruins don't look anything like a national-title contender at this point, but there is still time for things to come together.

"They've got a very good team," Fisher said. "A young team that will continue to get better and I know what it's like to have pressures of expectations. I like their team."

That's promising coming from someone with Fisher's pedigree and what the Bruins really need now is experience. They need to develop a feel for one another on the court, especially on the defensive end where they seem lost sometimes.

They have to learn each other's moves on the offensive end, how to pass to one another and the sweet shooting spot for every player. It's time for the freshman class to grow up and into the college game.

Saturday's game against San Diego State took place on national television with a crowd of more than 17,000 providing a big-game environment. The Aztecs, who started two juniors and two seniors Saturday, knew what it would take to win in that setting.

"Us being vets, we know how the college game goes, how it flows so I feel like it gives us the upper hand going against freshmen," said Jamaal Franklin, who had a game-high 28 points for San Diego State.

To expect UCLA's young guns to have a similar feel for the game at this level might be a little too much.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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