Another bad day in paradise for UCLA basketball
Reporting from Lahaina, Hawaii — Reeves Nelson ran late Saturday, the UCLA forward missing the team bus to Los Angeles International Airport and the flight to Hawaii.
Ben Howland ran late Sunday, the Bruins coach missing a coaches’ meeting and showing up a few minutes late to a media conference.
It was a theme that would repeat itself over the next three days, UCLA a bit tardy on the court while falling behind in the first half of each game of the Maui Invitational.
The Bruins certainly are behind schedule after a 79-63 loss to No. 15 Michigan on Wednesday at the Lahaina Civic Center left a team that started the season nationally ranked off to its worst start in 24 years.
“We came out here and our goal was to win the whole thing,” said UCLA sophomore center Joshua Smith, a towel wrapped around his head and his eyes red and swollen. “That didn’t happen.”
The Bruins (1-4) took fourth place courtesy of an opening-round victory over Chaminade, a Division II team that couldn’t hold an early six-point lead.
After UCLA won the Maui Invitational five years ago, the Bruins had two days to frolic in the Pacific Ocean before returning to Westwood. Now they’ll have one day in paradise to contemplate a season on the verge of disaster.
“It’s really obvious that we have a long way to go to be able to compete against the teams on our schedule that are left,” Howland said. “It’s going to be a hard fight.”
UCLA was staggering from the start against the Wolverines (5-1), falling behind by 11 points less than nine minutes into the game. As they had the previous day against Kansas, the Bruins rallied, pulling to within five points midway through the second half, before eventually wilting during a 15-6 Michigan surge.
Guard Zack Novak scored 22 points on seven-for-eight shooting and Tim Hardaway Jr. added 20 points for the Wolverines, who repeatedly burned their more plodding counterparts with dribble penetration and open three-point shots. Michigan shot 61.7% to UCLA’s 41.8% and outrebounded the Bruins, 32-24.
“They hurt us every way imaginable, with back cuts, with open threes,” Howland said. “We’re going to have to pack in our defense. Everybody’s got to be inside except for the guy guarding the ball.”
Shaky defense is only part of a laundry list of concerns for a team that made four of 17 three-point attempts and is shooting 29.7% from behind the arc this season.
A frontcourt that was supposed to dominate has instead been mostly pushed around, outrebounded in three of five games. Smith appears to have regressed from last season, averaging 9.0 points and 18.2 minutes a game, down from 10.9 points and 21.7 minutes as a freshman. His 12 points and five rebounds against the Wolverines were largely offset by six turnovers.
Nelson lacked the fiery demeanor he displayed earlier in the tournament after sitting out 1½ games as punishment for various issues, collecting six points and four rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench.
Travis Wear scored a career-high 16 points, making six of 10 shots, but the sophomore forward continued to struggle with defense and rebounding, just like his 6-foot-10 twin David.
The Bruins’ start is stirring reminders of two years ago, when they dropped six of their first eight games on the way to a losing season, except this might be worse; each of UCLA’s defeats has come by double digits.
Next up is Pepperdine on Monday at the Sports Arena, where the Bruins are already 0-2 against mid-major opponents.
“We know it’s a long season and we have to keep our heads up,” Travis Wear said. “It’s a marathon and this is just the beginning.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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