The UCLA Bruins appear to be hitting the proverbial freshman wall.
Using a lineup that includes three starting freshmen, coach Ben Howland has seen his team go from one of the best offensive teams in the Pac-12 to one of the worst during the past three weeks, which has coincided with the team's 3-4 record over the past seven games.
The Bruins entered this week tied for first in the Pac-12 standings and leading the conference in field goal percentage, but first place is now gone, and the lead in shooting percentage is dwindling, as UCLA has failed to shoot better than 40 percent in four of its past five games.
The Bruins shot 37.7 percent Thursday in a 76-63 loss at California and were barely better than 30 percent in the first half. Prior to the recent five-game shooting slump, UCLA shot less than 40 percent only one time this season -- Nov. 13 against UC Irvine in the second game of the season.
But the Bruins have now shot their three lowest percentages of the season during the past five games: 33.3 percent against Washington, 34.7 percent against Arizona State and 37.7 percent against Cal. A 38.2 percent performance against USC was the fifth-lowest.
“Our defense was poor [against Cal], but again it was fueled by not performing well offensively,” Howland said. “They both go hand in hand. It’s not like it’s two separate teams. They work together, and we have to do a better job in our half-court offense in particular.”
UCLA was never going to be a great defensive team. The Bruins are simply too slow and unathletic to play an elite level of defense. But they had covered up their defensive deficiencies by playing solid team defense and using a potent offense to win games.
Now, however, the offense appears to be drying up. UCLA has scored fewer than 70 points nine times this season, and four of those have come in the past seven games. The Bruins also scored only 65 in regulation of an overtime loss to USC and 67 in regulation against UC Irvine, so of the 11 times they have failed to crack 70 points in 40 minutes this season, five have come in the past seven games.
Leading scorer Shabazz Muhammad had 13 points but made only four of 13 shots against Cal and has been worse than 40 percent in three of the past four games as defenses have placed an added emphasis on stopping him with creative double-teams.
Afterward, Muhammad bemoaned the team's inability to play as a unit. Howland interpreted that as learning to find the open man when you are double-teamed.
“Last night was tough for him, and I don’t think he recognized it,” Howland said. “Every time he got the ball, they were running another player at him and doubling him. So what they were saying is that you have to pass the ball. That’s something that may happen again in the future, so it was a good learning experience. It’s something that was new that he really hasn’t seen before to that extent.”
Complacency a factor? Muhammad told reporters after UCLA’s loss to California that he thought the team came out a little too relaxed knowing that the Bruins had defeated the Golden Bears by 14 points earlier this season. Cal proceeded to steamroll UCLA 47-22 in the first half.
Howland said he hopes complacency wasn’t a factor but that you never know.
“I don’t think that had a factor, but you know our young guys are going through this for the first time, and they don’t know what to expect necessarily,” Howland said. “Anytime you get complacent, you are going to lose. Not just against Cal, that’s against anybody. I sure hope it’s not complacency.”
The Bruins defeated Stanford 68-60 earlier this season, so Howland said he would make sure the players know that result means nothing going into Saturday’s game against the Cardinal.
“I will after you guys brought it up,” Howland said. “I’ll make that part of my speech. If that’s the perception that you guys have, I sure hope that’s not the case, but I’m going to bring that up if that’s going to help them get their head in the right way."
NCAA tournament so close, yet so far away: UCLA’s loss to Cal was a blow not only because it knocked the Bruins out of first place, but because it was on ESPN2 for all the country to see -- including members of the NCAA tournament selection committee.
It only stands to reason that the poor performance would be more harmful to UCLA’s NCAA tournament résumé than losses to Cal Poly and USC because of the exposure it received. But then, UCLA’s victories over Missouri and at Arizona were also on ESPN networks.
As of now, the Bruins are probably in the tournament. ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi has the Bruins as a No. 9 seed in his latest Bracketology. But that is by no means a lock with the way the Bruins have been playing, especially considering four of their last six games are on the road.
“I think there is a lot of basketball yet to be played,” Howland said. “I think it’s just, No. 1, at the end of the day, it comes down to wins and losses. Quality wins. When you look at our quality wins now, we have great quality wins at Arizona and at Colorado, along with Missouri at home.”