UCLA Basketball: Keys to Bruins Salvaging Sinking Season

Richard LangfordCorrespondent IDecember 8, 2012

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 08:  Shabazz Muhammad #15 of the UCLA Bruins waits on the court during the game against the Texas Longhorns during the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Showcase at Reliant Stadium on December 8, 2012 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The young, talented and underachieving Bruins need to start making some improvements, or head coach Ben Howland is going to be forced into looking for a new job. 

Entering their Saturday game with Texas, the Bruins have lost three of their past five games, which included a downright embarrassing loss on their home floor to Cal Poly. 

The Bruins (5-3) were not supposed to be struggling like this. They were the nation's No. 13 team in preseason rankings, and now they are unranked.

UCLA had a high-profile recruiting class, led by the highly regarded Shabazz Muhammad, and this was supposed to be a return to power for the mighty Bruins. 

Yet here they are, in need of great improvements to rescue a rapidly sinking season. Here is what the Bruins need to do to avoid disaster. 


Fix the Defense

The Bruins have allowed at least 70 points in five of their eight games, which includes all three of their losses. 

This team is young and not overly athletic, and it shows on defense. They are getting torched in man coverage, and teams figure out their zone as the game wears on. 

In their three losses, the Bruins have allowed the opposition to shoot at least 57.7 percent from the field in the second half. 

This is not going to be an easy fix, but here are a few things they can do to improve. 


Get the Freshman Playing Decent Man D

Muhammad and fellow freshman Kyle Anderson brought huge profiles to the program, but that wasn't because these guys were lock-down defenders, and after having watched them for this season, I'm not sure they ever really tried to play defense before. 

Both of these young men have been terrible in man-to-man defense. However, they are also too talented to leave off the court for long. You can't expect to have a passable man defense if two of the five players are liabilities. 

Muhammad certainly has all the athletic tools to play man. He simply needs to work at it, and Howland needs to make him work and become more proficient on defense. 

It will not be as simple with Anderson. The 6'9", versatile player is a matchup nightmare on offense, but on the flip side, he has a hard time guarding anyone. 

The quickest way for him to alleviate this will be to keep getting stronger. He will always struggle with the smaller, quicker players, but with some added strength he will be better against the bigger guys. 

If these two can make defensive strides as the season goes, this team will make big improvements. 

Of course, Howland doesn't need to rely solely on man defense. 


Play More Zone

The struggles of this team in man-to-man are not lost on the coaching staff. The Bruins have spent plenty of time in a zone, and it looks like most of that time in a basic 2-3 zone.

This style is better suited for the Bruins, but they are still giving up way too many open looks.

Improvements here will be a matter of time and effort. UCLA must learn to communicate effectively in zone and close out on shooters.

More importantly, they will need to incorporate wrinkles into the zone to make it tougher for the opposition to figure them out, and they need to be able to slide into man-to-man and not worry about getting toasted.

This will help them close out games strong, and all of this will let their defense shine through.