This has been a Murphy's Law kind of year for the UCLA Bruins' basketball program thus far.
They had lost four of their first six games, including three straight to finish last at the 76 Classic in Anaheim during Thanksgiving weekend.
Included in those defeats were losses to Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, mid-level programs that have toiled for decades in the Bruins' shadow.
Senior starter Nikola Dragovic, one of the few players on the team with any real experience, was arrested late last month an assault charges after getting into a fight at a nightclub—the second time in two years that he has gotten into trouble with the law.
Though Dragovic was suspended for a game and has since returned, it was undoubtedly a distraction.
Starting forward Drew Gordon, who was averaging 11 points a game, abruptly quit the team early last week over differences with coach Ben Howland.
Add to all of this the injuries suffered, the inexperience, and the lack of shooting ability—UCLA is averaging 43 percent from the floor, 23 percent from the three-point line, and making just 55 percent of their free throws—and you have one struggling bunch of basketball players.
And to top it all off, the No. 1-ranked Kansas Jayhawks came to Pauley Pavilion in Westwood on Sunday to face this Bruin mess.
Most members of Bruin Nation were expecting an absolute massacre of at least 30 or 40 points.
Instead, the crowd of 10,451 saw a very good effort by UCLA against Kansas in a 73-61 loss, in which they trailed by as few as four points in the second half.
Senior guard Michael Roll led the Bruins with 16 points, and freshman forward Reeves Nelson, although he missed several easy shots in the paint, proved to be a really tough banger, collecting nine rebounds against a bigger and more experienced Jayhawk front line before getting his eye poked.
Dragovic and Malcolm Lee also scored in double digits for UCLA—Dragovic with 14 points and Lee adding 12.
Kansas (7-0) turned out to be too much for the Bruins, however.
All-American center Cole Aldrich grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots, and Markieff Morris was a complete beast, leading all scorers with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting to go along with his six boards.
UCLA, now 2-5 on the young season, should be given a pat on the back for their efforts against the nation's No. 1 team.
But, over the course of the game, it was obvious that they have much growing to do; the fact that the team consists of mostly sophomores and true freshmen belies that.
With a lot of hard work and improvement in their shooting and rebounding—the Bruins shot a mere 36 percent for the game, 58 percent from the charity stripe, and were outrebounded 43-to-36 on Sunday—a rise in the number of victories is not completely out of the question.
They will next face another formidable opponent in Mississippi State in the John R. Wooden Classic on Dec. 12.
Being that it is named after the Bruin legend who was recently voted the greatest sports coach of all time, I expect UCLA to give another top effort against the Bulldogs, if not actually win.
It will be interesting to see how this young team responds.
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