LOS ANGELES -- The UCLA basketball team is not who we thought they were.
Not even close, as a matter of fact.
The first week of the season has been with enough trials, tribulations and turmoil to last a calendar year but the turbulent early ride became even bumpier when UCLA was blown out by Middle Tennessee State, 86-66, Tuesday night at the Sports Arena.
It was the second consecutive loss to a mid-major school with a six-syllable name, the type of early-season schedule fodder that is supposed to pump up the record of one of the most storied programs in the history of the sport.
The loss to Middle Tennessee served notice that the Bruins (0-2) were far overrated at No. 17 in the preseason AP Poll and have their work cut out if they are to live up to the expectations of winning the Pac-12 title as they were picked to do.
It also continued an incredibly bizarre beginning stretch in which the Bruins lost to Loyola Marymount, center Joshua Smith made a derogatory Tweet directed at LMU and power forward Reeves Nelson was suspended indefinitely for conduct issues.
“I know our guys are down right now. They’ve got to feel terrible, as do I, to have this kind of performance,” coach Ben Howland said. “It’s obviously going to be a lot of soul searching here, but to say it’s unfixable, no I don’t believe that.”
The biggest issue that needs fixing, at least on the court, is defense. Middle Tennessee shot 71.4 percent from the field for the game -- a number Howland said was the highest percentage a team has ever shot against a team he’s coached.
Middle Tennessee (3-0) made its first nine three-point attempts, tying an NCAA record for three-pointers made without a miss, and finished 10-of-11 on three pointers. The Bruins have allowed opponents to make 20-of-26 three point shots through two games.
“Obviously that was a very embarrassing score to allow a team to shoot 71 percent from the field and go 10-11 from three,” Howland said. “We really broke down a lot of times.”
Howland said he would make changes to the Bruins’ defensive scheme, maybe even install a zone to take advantage of UCLA’s size. The Bruins have twins David and Travis Wear and Smith all at 6-10, but none are particularly quick and a zone might help cover up that weakness.
The early season turmoil hasn’t helped. Guard Jerime Anderson was suspended for the first game because of an offseason incident and now Nelson, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder a year ago, is out indefinitely.
Plus, the Wear brothers are starting for the first time after sitting out as transfers last season and forward De’End Parker made his first start Tuesday and there is obvious lack of chemistry that can only be fixed by playing together.
“This is a team that we’re still trying to figure out stuff right now,” Smith said.
The good news is that there is still time to get back on track. The season is only two games old and Nelson could conceivably sort through his issues and get back with the team. Howland said he would meet with Nelson face to face on Wednesday and figure out Nelson’s future with the team.
“[I’m looking for] an understanding that he’s got a lot of things that need to improve in terms of coachability, attitude, interacting with his teammates, representing the university the way we expect to be represented,” Howland said. “We’ll have a long talk about a lot of different issues.”
But this season could start spiraling out of control very quickly. The Bruins head to Maui next week, where they will face Division II Chaminade in the Maui Invitational and then face the winner of Georgetown and Kansas.
Other potential matchups include Duke, Memphis, Michigan and Tennessee.
“We’re really a long way away from being a good team,” Howland said. “We’re going into the best tournament in the country next week and we’ve got to try to find a way to get a win here in our next game.”
That is far from a given the way things have started for the Bruins. Division II Cal State San Bernardino gave UCLA a run during UCLA’s 80-72 exhibition game victory Nov. 6 and Chaminade is no stranger to upsetting national powerhouses in that tournament.
But it would at least be a step in the right direction, and the Bruins could definitely use one of those right about now.
“It’s a long season ahead of us,” Howland said. “We’re 0-2 which is obviously disappointing. I am confident our guys are not going to give up. We have good kids, but we have a lot of work to do. We’re not very good right now. That’s obvious.”