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Bruins’ inexperience is showing

There’s no escaping it, not even when Malcolm Lee goes to class, hoping to focus on world culture or history.

The other students keep asking Lee and his UCLA teammates about why the basketball season is off to such a rocky start.

“They give us a hard time,” Lee said. “It kind of bothers us because we know we should be winning.”

The grumbling extends to fans, alumni and the media, everyone wondering: What has gone wrong?

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With five straight trips to the NCAA tournament -- including three Final Fours -- UCLA was due to reload. But there is the widespread belief that, for a traditional powerhouse, a bad season shouldn’t be this bad.

Stumbling to a 3-6 record, the Bruins have fallen to local teams they historically dominate and have looked flat in blowout losses to unranked Portland and Mississippi State.

Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN commentator and former coach, calls it “a perfect storm” of too many players leaving early for the NBA combined with a sophomore class -- the new heart of the roster -- that has yet to measure up.

“Quite frankly, there are a few guys they missed on as part of that recruiting class a year ago,” Fraschilla said. “Guys are not turning out as good as advertised.”

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With the Bruins facing a tough matchup at Notre Dame today, it is tempting to think about what might have been.

If not for early departures, the starting lineup would feature guards Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday feeding Kevin Love in the post.

“Obviously, that hurt,” said Don MacLean, a former Bruin who follows the team as a broadcaster. “Some of those players they thought would stay for a while.”

The loss of Holiday was particularly costly. Coaches had convinced themselves he would return after a so-so freshman season. Instead, UCLA must rely on inexperienced point guard Jerime Anderson to run a team now dominated by freshmen and sophomores.

And the learning curve has been steep.

The Bruins have played five teams with RPI ratings in the top 75 this season, including Kansas and Butler. By comparison, 9-2 Notre Dame has faced three.

“You make these schedules years in advance and I did a poor job, obviously,” Coach Ben Howland said. “You want to build some confidence by getting some wins early in the season.”

Mounting losses have caused players to openly doubt themselves. At the same time, some underclassmen have struggled with Howland’s style of basketball.

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His offense requires patience and ball movement while his defense asks players to constantly adapt, pressuring the ball, double-teaming and looking to help.

“That’s been a problem with a couple of the players and definitely myself,” Anderson said. “I’m out there on the floor and I’m thinking a little bit more than I should. I should just play.”

The mental grind might explain UCLA’s occasional sluggishness, but it doesn’t get to the underlying question of talent.

Guard Michael Roll is the only senior who has produced consistently, with Nikola Dragovic mired in a slump and James Keefe battling a recurring shoulder injury.

The freshmen have shown flashes of solid play -- especially Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt -- but have suffered from rookie mistakes.

“These guys would all be really good role players if you still had Kevin Love and Westbrook and Jrue Holiday,” Fraschilla said.

Or if the sophomores, who arrived in Westwood ranked among the best in the nation, had lived up to the hype.

So far, their reputation has not translated into the quick, aggressive play required on defense.

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Nor has it produced numbers at the offensive end of the court.

While Anderson continues to learn on the job, Lee is scoring 13.6 points per game, somewhere short of the breakout performance expected of him.

Things have not gone well for center J’mison Morgan. The highly rated prospect out of Texas spent his freshman year trying to get in shape and had all but disappeared this fall until another sophomore big man, Drew Gordon, abruptly left the team.

With more minutes, Morgan is averaging 2.3 points and 1.8 rebounds.

Recruiting is a fuzzy science, at best, and Howland cannot help musing about former players such as Westbrook and Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya.

“They weren’t these highly rated guys and yet they worked really hard,” the coach said. “The rankings don’t necessarily always match up.”

Other factors have contributed to UCLA’s woes. The Southern California talent pool -- long a staple for the Bruins -- has not been as strong recently. Fraschilla says rival recruiters are using Howland’s deliberate style of basketball against him, luring away prospects.

So where does that leave the current roster?

The clock is ticking down to the start of the Pacific 10 Conference schedule in a couple of weeks.

During Tuesday’s victory against overmatched New Mexico State, the defense improved and the guards were able to penetrate and create plays. Honeycutt’s performance continued to suggest that, barring further injury, he could soon vie for a starting spot.

Former player Tracy Murray sees a gradual learning process.

“Everybody has to be realistic about what they can do on the court,” Murray said. “If someone like, say, Dragovic can’t guard the guy on the perimeter, then Morgan has to come over and protect his back.”

At least the New Mexico State win gave players a confidence boost. It also helps that the Pac-10 appears headed for a down year.

“Forget their record right now,” Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury said of the Bruins.

“Trust me, by the end of this season, Ben’s going to have one of the better teams in this league.”

The rebuilding effort continues in South Bend today, the Bruins facing Notre Dame’s All-American forward Luke Harangody.

An upset victory followed by a couple of lesser opponents on the horizon could put UCLA at .500 by conference play, but that won’t satisfy fans accustomed to bigger and better things.

Which means Lee will probably keep hearing those questions when classes resume.

The sophomore has already braced himself.

“I try to let it go in one ear and out the other.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

UCLA vs. Notre Dame at Joyce Center Fieldhouse 11 a.m. PST, Channel 2


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