UCLA Basketball: 5 Reasons the Bruins Are Contenders Again

Robert PaceContributor IIIDecember 18, 2011

UCLA Basketball: 5 Reasons the Bruins Are Contenders Again

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    There's no getting around it: The Bruins had a very rough start to the season. After being favored to win the Pac-12, UCLA opened the season with back-to-back losses to mid-majors at home. 

    In addition to their on-court woes, the Bruins were then hit with more tribulations from an undisciplined Reeves Nelson, who was recently dismissed from the team by Ben Howland. 

    It may not have been the prettiest opening to the season, but the Bruins have now evened out their record to 5-5 and are starting to play some good basketball. 

    Here's why UCLA is a contender again.


1. Joshua Smith Is Playing with Passion

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    He has yet to realize his full potential, but Joshua Smith is beginning to improve his play. His fitness level—a detriment to his success so far—hasn't changed, but something has: his mentality. 

    Smith is playing with a much improved mentality and is starting to play the game with passion. This makes all the difference; his passion for the game was emanating from every play he made. 

    In UCLA's most recent game against UC Davis, Smith recorded his first double-double on the season as well as a season high in rebounds (10) and points (18)

    If Smith can keep up the intensity, his play will improve twofold. 

2. Lazeric Jones Has Become a Leader

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    As with all teams, energy emanates from the point guard. Lazeric Jones' early season struggles rubbed off on his fellow teammates and left the team uncertain as to what to expect from the senior guard. 

    Jones has really turned it on in the past five games, shooting the ball with much more confidence and scoring in double figures (twice scoring 21 points). 

    With his increased confidence and improved play, Jones' demeanor is much more positive, which he spreads to his teammates. 

    Jones has become an upperclassman leader on this team, which is something that UCLA desperately needed in order to be a successful team. 

3. Negative Energy Has Vanished

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    It may just be because the Bruins are starting to win games, but the negative energy that was looming over the team has now vanished. 

    A major source of that negative energy was transmitted by Reeves Nelson, whose disciplinary problems and conflict with the coaching staff produced much strife in the Bruins locker room. 

    Upon the dismissal of Reeves Nelson, this team has expressed only positive energy and shows a genuine desire to win games. 

    Let's not forget to appreciate Reeves Nelson's past contributions to the Bruins; however, he only served as a distraction and a source of negative energy for the team this year. His dismissal was unfortunate but has been a positive step for the struggling Bruins. 

4. The 'Unit'

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    unit (ˈyü-nət) noun

    a: a single thing, person, or group that is a constituent of a whole

    c: a piece or complex of apparatus serving to perform one particular function

    Sending five guys out there to form a team does not entail that they are a "unit," a part of the whole that is serving to perform a particular function. 

    Winning is the default goal of a game where score it taken, but in order to accomplish that goal, the parts of a whole must operate together. 

    It took a while, but the Bruins have now become a unit. The team chemistry is there; guys are enjoying the game that they have loved their entire lives; they're on the same page. 

    This is a monumental step for a team on which there was much animosity in the beginning of the season. 

    Call it team chemistry, bonding or what you will, but this Bruins team has become a unit. 

5. Confidence Is Booming

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    Putting a few wins under their belts has worked miracles for the Bruins' team ego. Whereas UCLA was a very timid and uncertain team in the beginning of the season as they were plagued with losses, the Bruins have become confident in their approach. 

    Hesitation is gone and swagger has swooped in. UCLA is taking much more confident shots and much better looks, which has resulted in increased offensive production.

    Their defense has shown much more confidence as well, as the Bruins are more trusting of their fellow teammates to play as a unit on defense. 

    To sum it up, it's not the skill level of this team that has increased. The skill level has been there all along. 

    The lights are starting to warm up in Los Angeles. Slowly but surely, they are brightening.