The next game is supposed to be the easiest of the season for the UCLA basketball team, and that's what should have Bruins fans most concerned.
UCLA opens the Hawaii portion of its schedule in a Maui Invitational game against Chaminade, a Division II school in Honolulu that has won only six games in the 27-year history of the tournament. It should be a cakewalk for mighty UCLA, which won the tournament the last time it ventured to the islands, but after an inauspicious and shocking start to the season, even little Chaminade is no gimmie for the Bruins.
UCLA (0-2) has lost consecutive games to start the season for the first time since 2002-03, but that isn't so much the problem as the manner in which they have lost (blowouts) and the teams to which they have lost (mid-majors Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State).
The disappointing start continued a season-long trend from last season in which UCLA had trouble playing at a high level against unranked or lesser-known opponents, so the challenge for UCLA this week lies not in potential matchups against Georgetown, No. 12 Kansas, No. 10 Memphis, No. 17 Michigan or No. 6 Duke, but in that first-round game against the Silverswords.
"I think it’s just a natural instinct," said guard Tyler Lamb. "I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and it’s just hard to get up for those teams that are supposedly less than you are and not as good. But we have to change that and I think we are changing that."
UCLA's 69-58 loss to LMU in the season opener was supposed to be the spark that helped the Bruins realize they need to play hard in every game, but they played even worse against Middle Tennessee in an 86-66 loss four days later.
The defense looks lost and the offense has had little cohesion or chemistry early on. Opponents are shooting 57.4 percent against UCLA, which is last among Division I teams, while the Bruins are shooting only 38.9 percent.
Playing that way clearly hasn't helped the Bruins against mid-major schools so the prospect of playing upper echelon team right now isn't very appealing. But the Bruins say they can't worry about the names on their opponent's jerseys.
"To tell you the truth it’s not really them, it’s us that we have to figure out," center Joshua Smith said. "We know we’re going to go to Maui, we know the potential matchups if we get past Chaminade we’ll play Kansas or Georgetown and all those good teams. But it all starts in practice. We’ve got to regroup. We’ve got to realize that the only people we care about are in the locker room. We’ve got to generate our own energy and just go out and play."
Last season, UCLA struggled early on in games against such nonconference foes as Pepperdine, Montana, UC Davis and UC Irvine. In conference play, they also struggled against some lower-rung teams such as Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford -- the bottom three teams in the league -- and then lost to seventh-place Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament.
It's a problem the Bruins acknowledged existed last season but were able to overcome it most of the time. They lost to Montana and Oregon but didn't really have another bad loss all season. This year, they've already got two.
"It’s just the same thing when guys are in high school and AAU, you get up for the games when you know there is a guy on the other team or if you know the team is ranked," Smith said. "It’s easier to get up for games like that because you’re on the big stage and the game means a little more than other games, but when you’re playing you gotta treat every game the same."
A refocused mental approach will be step one in turning around this season. Installing some new schemes on both ends of the court to better utilize personnel is another step. Coach Ben Howland acknowledged last week that his man-to-man defense was not working with a team filled with big, slow players and that a zone might be a better way to go.
Heading to Hawaii without a win was not part of the plan for this week and it definitely has put a damper on the trip to paradise, but a good showing in Maui certainly would help the team and its fans breathe a little sigh of relief.
"We’ve got to go out there to play games and win games," guard Jerime Anderson said. "That’s what we do. We’re basketball players. We’re not going out there to hang out on the beach or see pretty girls or anything like that, we’re going out there to play games and that’s where our focus is at.
Coming home with a tournament title would certainly be nice, but the Bruins aren't thinking about that right now. Coming home with a win is far more important, even if its is against Chaminade.
Right about now, the Bruins would take anything.