UCLA Basketball: Is It Time to Hit the Panic Button?

Robert PaceContributor IIIDecember 3, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 28:  Head coach Ben Howland of the UCLA Bruins complains to a referee in the game with the Cal State Northridge Matadors at Pauley Pavilion on November 28, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Remember the hype over the UCLA basketball team coming into this season?

It seems like ages ago, but you may have the faintest memory of expectations surrounding a highly prized recruiting class, including two Top 5 recruits. Dust of the banks of your memory, you’ll remember bits and pieces, including a No. 13 preseason ranking.

Back to reality, now. A month into the season and the Bruins are 5-3, most recently falling to San Diego State in the Wooden Classic. Simply stated, it’s been rough.

An unconvincing overtime win over Irvine, a loss against their first challenging opponent (Georgetown), and a startling loss to Cal Poly at home have added to the initial struggle to get Shabazz Muhammad to clear eligibility as well as the transfers of Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith.

It hasn’t been a smooth ride by any means, and the Bruins’ season has not only slowed down shortly after gaining early-season momentum with three consecutive wins to start season but has nearly derailed, all before conference play has begun.

It’s déjà vu for Bruins fans. It was only a year ago that the Bruins were ranked in the Top 25 and spiraled out of control in the beginning of the season, ultimately culminating in a disappointing 19-17 record, finishing sixth in the Pac-12 and missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth.

Although this year’s team is fundamentally more talented, who’s to say it isn’t headed on the same road? Is it time to hit the panic button?

The Bruins haven’t quite reached the point of breaking the glass and sounding the alarm, but they’re walking on eggshells as they wrap up nonconference play in December.

In UCLA’s upcoming five games before the Pac-12 tips off (12/8: Texas, 12/15: Prairie A&M, 12/18: Long Beach State, 12/22: Fresno State, 12/28: Missouri), it must win a majority of the games and at least give No. 12 Missouri a run for its money if the Bruins can’t win on their home court.

This Bruins squad may have talent, but it’s an unrefined talent at that, which begs Coach Howland to quickly assist his players in acclimating to the college game. This team needs to jell at lightning speed or it will be blown out of the water in the Pac-12 like last year’s team.

"I'd say I'm not really comfortable out there still," Muhammad said after UCLA’s game against SDSU. "I'm still working through it and it's a learning process so I'm going to learn through it."

The prospect of freshmen center Tony Parker joining his fellow highly recruited counterparts gives UCLA some sense of assurance to add to the hopeful rapid on-court maturation of Muhammad, Anderson, and Adams; however, that prospect needs to become realized very soon.

With their remaining nonconference games dwindling down, the Bruins face a tremendously important matchup this Saturday when they take on Texas. It’s a crucial game not only because they need to bounce back from a tough loss to San Diego State but also because the Bruins have an outstanding chance to prove themselves against a fellow young, similarly ranked team.

If UCLA is able to overcome Texas, it will have proved itself as a resilient team that still embodies the enormous potential that had it highly ranked coming into the season and will have the opportunity to garner a four-game win streak heading into its final nonconference game against No. 12 Missouri.

If not, the Bruins register their first back-to-back losses and fall to 5-4 on the season, which will wipe away any momentum and sink team morale if they don’t maintain perspective, which is likely given the lack of leadership on the court and from Coach Howland on the bench.

So, while it may not yet be time to hit the panic button, it’s in the Bruins’ peripheries as they enter Saturday with hammer in hand.