Was it only just a few years ago that the UCLA Bruins made three straight trips to the NCAA Final Four? Those teams were led by future NBA stars such as Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Kevin Love, Jrue Holiday, Aaron Afflalo and on and on and on.
What a contrast this season has been so far. Everyone’s preseason pick to win the Pac-12, the Bruins instead have incurred on-court struggles and off-court turmoil that must be driving head coach Ben Howland crazy.
Here is a brief history of the unexpectedly unpleasant first month of UCLA’s 2011-12 season:
November 11: The Bruins were shocked in their season opener by LMU, 69-58.
November 12: All-Conference 6’8” junior forward Reeves Nelson, who graced the West Coast cover of Sports Illustrated’s CBB preview issue, was late to a team meeting the day after the loss to LMU.
November 14: Nelson was suspended by Coach Howland for conduct detrimental to the team, including attitude issues during the loss to LMU and missing the November 12 meeting.
November 15: UCLA, minus Nelson, was blown out at home 86-66 by Middle Tennessee State. The Bruins shot 37 percent overall and only 4-of-20 on threes.
November 16: Nelson was reinstated by Coach Howland.
November 19: Nelson missed the team’s bus to LAX and the plane to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, and had to fly there on his own. For that he was benched for the first half of the Bruins’ tourney opener against Chaminade.
November 21-23: UCLA played poorly and lackadaisically in the Maui tournament, losing big to Kansas and Michigan and winning only against Chaminade, a Division II school.
November 28: Back in Los Angeles, the Bruins seemingly began to right the ship, with a 62-39 laugher over Pepperdine. Nelson did not start, picked up three fouls and played only 10 minutes, scoring two points.
December 3: UCLA blew an 11-point lead and lost to Texas 69-59, dropping the Bruins’ record to 2-5, their worst start in nine years, since the 2002-03 season.
Nelson was benched during the second half and while on the bench, was apparently not displaying the game face that Coach Howland expected.
December 6: Nelson was suspended again, this time “indefinitely,” by Coach Howland for conduct detrimental to the team, including his behavior during the Texas game.
The terrifically talented Nelson (nearly 14 points per game and over nine rebounds per game last season) appears to be his own worst enemy. His travails are starting to resemble those of former South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia—a gifted athlete on an elite team who keeps making headlines for the wrong reasons.
Garcia was ultimately kicked off the Gamecocks team by head coach Steve Spurrier. With luck, Nelson will pull himself together before he meets a similar fate from Coach Howland.
December 7: As if things couldn’t get any worse, reserve guard Norman Powell was hospitalized after having an allergic reaction at practice.
Luckily, there remains ample time for a turnaround. A series of eminently winnable non-conference games will ensue before the Pac-12 season gets underway after Christmas.
UCLA has the talent on paper to win the conference and make a run in March Madness. The Pac-12 again looks to be perhaps the weakest major conference in the nation, as only Stanford has thus far shown signs of significant improvement.
For years, Coach Howland’s teams have played all-out defense, but this year’s squad has not yet read the memo, as opponents are shooting over 47 percent beyond the arc. The ballyhooed frontcourt has been out-rebounded in almost every game.
And, the Bruins lack their usual home-court advantage at fabled Pauley Pavilion, traveling instead nearly 20 miles to the Sports Arena for their home games. Which might be a blessing in disguise—if things continue to unravel, the Bruins might welcome being as far from campus as possible.