There are—or at least there used to be—rites of passage that young college basketball players went through over the course of their careers. With many of the most incandescent arcs now begun and completed after a single season, the pace has necessarily been sped up considerably.
This UCLA team, which is headed by freshmen, and anchored by upperclassmen who spent the early stages of their careers at other schools, is traveling this steep ascent of instruction together for the first time.
At a traditional powerhouse school like UCLA, the curriculum, and the lessons it offers, is in some ways drastically different than what a player gets at a school under less scrutiny.
These are 10 of the most important things this group has learned so far this season, which they can take with them into the home stretch headed directly toward the tournament.
The Bruins defensive window has looked, at times, like a target for drunken gunship pilots to make wild strafing passes at, casually firing off a cylinder of missiles before they hit the target.
If you had in front of you a person with an extremely short attention span, who would take only one reason for the Bruins three losses in the Pac-12 to Oregon, Arizona State and USC, the feeble rebounding results would have to be selected.
Of these—"The Bachynski Incident"—in the deserts around Tempe is the most infamous. Jordan Bachynski—as quiet a 7'2'', 250 lbs player as there might be in America—scored 22 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked six shots against UCLA in the Sun Devil's 78-60, merciless pitchfork thrashing of the Bruins back in January.
Bachynski made 10 of his 12 shots from the floor, because most of his work consisted of taking rebounds away from Bruins and dunking the ball with the ferocity of 1,000 demons. The performance was so out of line it was shocking. Bachynski averages 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds on the season.
At 11.3 offensive rebounds allowed per game, UCLA sits at 318th in the country. The players know, but have not yet determined to make the all-out effort required to outbound opponents who may have bigger, deeper front lines, and more to gain than this team believes it has to lose.
This was proved last time out against Washington State. The team had 22 assists—the most for them over an up and down seven weeks—and shot 62 percent from the floor, winning 76-62.
"There was a lot of unselfishness," said Kyle Anderson in a Peter Yoon story filed at ESPN. Anderson had 12 points and seven assists against Wazzu. "That was the key to us scoring points and getting open shots. We just came out with the mindset of being unselfish and moving the ball around, and it would make it easy for us."
It is not just assisting, but limiting turnovers that has made the Bruins' offense at times one of the very best in America. As a team they are 4th best nationally at 1.54 assists-to-turnovers per game.
Larry Drew II is best in the conference and second nationally in assists-to-turnovers at 4.4. Anderson, at 1.8, is 5th best in league as a true freshman.
Drew Two's 7.9 assists per game is 4th best in the country.
The team is first in the Pac-12 at 17.2 assists per game, and sixth nationally. They are the highest scoring team in the Pac-12 at 76 points per game, which is 29th best overall.
The team also leads the conference in field goal percentage at 46.4 percent, putting them 41st overall.
The quartet of high school stars playing their first season in Westwood—Jordan Adams, Tony Parker, Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson–have been placed into the purifying flames of the mount at Pauley Pavilion, where only the truest metals prevail against the heat.
This team has learned that, because of their coach, there is no wiggle room for losses or bad games. UCLA has gone 3-3 in its last six, is tied for first place in the conference, and it is like the flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder have settled over a city waiting to be split into three by an earthquake like mankind has never seen.
The Kansas Jayhawks just broke a three game losing streak. This included a loss at TCU, which has zero Big XII conference wins except for the one over Kansas. The Jayhawks, with serious roster holes and maybe even talent deficiencies at multiple positions, may play into a Final Four.
College basketball is that wide open; but some UCLA fans want to play the pessimist and are waiting for the season to end badly to have the satisfaction of seeing the coach fired.
The Louisville Cardinals have lost four of their last seven, including games to Villanova, a mediocre team, and Georgetown, a good team. UCLA lost by eight points to Georgetown in Brooklyn, New York in its fourth game of the season, and Shabazz Muhammad's first as a Bruin. The Cardinals were the top ranked team in America for several weeks this season and a top 10 team at the time of the loss.
The Bruins are 2-2 against the top 25 this season. They are 2-0 against the top 10. It is the fourth time in 10 years Ben Howland's teams have beaten two top 10 teams in a season.
But a whole swath of fans and alumni are still angry and think the coach has let everyone down. This is a good lesson to learn, and the best reason to learn to play for yourself and your teammates with the outside tumult turned down to a pleasant, white noise.
People are judging college basketball on John Calipari's model, whose method has begun to bestride the narrow world like a colossus. Calipari is a great maestro and a coach I very much admire, but his special system is not for everybody.
But meanwhile, amongst all the talk of a disappointing season, and the belief amongst some that the Bruins' coach is not capable of compelling sterling young players to instant greatness, the new group is having a mighty fine first year.
UCLA has three of their freshman, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad, named on the Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Year midseason watch list. There are 12 players in the entire country on the list. The Bruins are the only program with three players on it, and the only other school with two is Michigan.
Anderson has the second most rebounds as a freshman in school history, trailing only Kevin Love, a rebounding machine as good at what he does as those hippos are at eating marbles.
The three freshmen are responsible for nearly 53 percent of UCLA's points, and 49 percent of their rebounds.
Everyone is saying it. Bill Walton is bellowing it like a dazed town friar who somehow arrived at the 20th century and made a nutrition staple of the the Kool Aid served at the Warlock's traveling pow wows.
The arena looks like it's holding 7,500 or so out of 13,000 on any given night. But it is a strange and fickle thing. UCLA's athletic department web site has all the facts.
Over the last 10 years—Ben Howland's tenure—the Bruins have more wins at 226, and the highest winning percentage at .687, than every other team in the Pac-12.
That is not nearly all of it, either. The Bruins have more conference wins, tournament wins, both conference and tournament winning percentage, and regular season titles than any other team in the league over that span.
UCLA has also three seasons with 30 wins or more; no other school has more than one.
But this year they have lost to Oregon and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo at home, are not being talked up nationally, and the fans are done with the coach, so they do not show up at games. The players have learned this.
Over the years Ben Howland has lost some embarrassing games to weaker in state schools. This year his team lost to Cal Poly San Louis Obispo and USC at home, and San Diego State in Anaheim.
The Cal Poly SLO game was a bad scene, but also a freak circumstance. Bruins' fans allowed The John R. Wooden Classic in Anaheim to be turned into a home venue atmosphere for the Aztecs, which was sad to see. The loss to the big rival USC at home was painful; but almost every season for every team has a bad one or two.
But not giving those teams any credit for showing up ready to ball out would be unfair to the the Bruins, who have played hard and without a lot of heart almost every night out.
After all, UCLA has beaten UC Irvine, Cal State Northridge, Long Beach State—(the first place team in the Big West)—and Fresno State. They also took the first rounds against Cal and Stanford. That makes the Bruins 5-3 against California school so far.
Those bad losses happen from time-to-time, but a lot of serious fans are doing their best to let what are regular occurrences in college basketball ruin the season for them.
This lesson has come predominately from negative reinforcement. The Bruins allow 68.4 points a game, which puts them 217th in the country.
The team's opponents average 13.5 assists a game, which is 234th worst, and grab 37.9 total rebounds, which is 309th.
UCLA has struggled on screen hedges, and they have gotten lost in their man-to-man rotations like propeller planes in the Devil's Triangle. They tried to play some 2-3 zone early in the season and had very limited success.
But all year the Bruins have been good at taking the ball away from their opponents. The team has forced 10 turnovers or more in all 24 games this season.
Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, two of their rising young stars, average 1.9 and 1.8 steals per game, which are 4th and 5th best in the conference, respectively.
Their senior point guard, Larry Drew II, ranks 8th at 1.5 per game.
The team knows, and the players say again and again, that they must lock-down their opponents on the defensive end if they want to do any damage in the tournament, where the big boys go to battle.
UCLA has played a few uneven energy games. Georgetown was an early example. They could not keep pace with San Diego State for 40 minutes, and could not sustain what was a winning pace in the first half against Oregon.
The team infamously let off the accelerator up 18 with 12 minutes left against San Luis Obispo and lost. Several teams have made big second half runs and gotten back in games they were losing badly.
The team's first half points allowed is not great at 30.7, which is 169th nationally. The second half is worse at 36.6, which puts them 232nd.
Over their last ten games, UCLA's opponents have scored more points in the second half than they did in the first half eight times. In one game the points were even in both halves. Only once did UCLA hold their opponent to fewer points in the second half.
It seems easy to attribute the drop off in intensity to having a young team that learned a couple of hard lessons about winning in major college basketball. If that is it, then if they are being smart and engaged there should not be a problem going forward.
Over that same 10 game span, UCLA trailed twice at the half to Arizona State and USC, and lost both games. The Bruins were tied with Washington at the half and won at the buzzer. They led at the half in the remaining seven games and won all of them.
Most opponents have too much pride on their roster to be left to die. They are capable of rising from the dead to beat you. Opponents must be finished off. The team seems to have learned that.
Even with the early mistakes, the Bruins are 7-2 in games that finished within five points. Coach Howland is 55-33 in his career in games decided within that margin.
The Bruins have only one true road loss, which came at Arizona State following a big blowout win at Arizona, the sixth ranked team in the country and on top of the Pac-12 conference at the time.
UCLA lost to Georgetown in Brooklyn in their fourth game of the year, and Shabazz Muhammad's first as a Bruin. Brooklyn is 233 miles from Georgetown's Washington, D.C. campus. It is 2,800 miles from Los Angeles. Georgetown is now 17-4 and ranked 15th in the country.
The San Diego State loss was in Anaheim. The other three losses have come at home, where the team plays under a lot of pressure with the open hostility toward their coach, the complete lack of patience from a large section of the fan base, and on most nights in front of just more than a half full arena.
The team is going to have to go on the road to win in March, and to know they can do it should inspire confidence inside their locker room.
It is very fashionable with the armchair set to say the Pac-12 is down on talent and good teams and winning the league should therefore be easy.
The conference will almost certainly get four of their 12 teams into the tournament with a better than average prospect of five. The Big XII is projected to put five teams in the dance; the ACC four or maybe five; and the SEC three or maybe four teams with 14 schools in their conference.
The Pac-12 is not as shabby as they would have you believe. There are good coaches up and down the coast, out in the deserts, and up in the mountains at Colorado. There are future professionals, either here or overseas, on almost every roster.
The Bruins have lost to Oregon, Arizona State and USC. They are tied for first place with Arizona and Oregon, and have home dates with the Arizona schools and a chance for payback on the road against Oregon.
It is not such a down year, and it is never easy, but UCLA is on the home stretch with a chance to trip the wire ahead of the pack.