UCLA’s dreadful start exposes flaws that don’t appear fixable

Immediately after the final buzzer mercifully signaled the end of UCLA's embarrassing 86-66 home loss to lightly regarded Middle Tennessee State on Tuesday night, suspended forward Reeves Nelson offered his thoughts on what he'd just seen on TV.

Tweeted Nelson concisely: "WOW."

Indeed, UCLA's woeful 0-2 start is worthy of all-caps simply because the program had so much higher expectations. A Bruins team ranked in the preseason top 25 and projected to win the Pac-12 has endured double-digit losses to LMU and Middle Tennessee State sandwiched around the indefinite suspension of Nelson, their leading returning scorer and rebounder.

The worst part about the predicament for the Bruins is the glaring weaknesses that have been exposed don't appear easily fixable. UCLA lacks the outside shooters necessary to make opposing teams pay for collapsing on their big men in the paint, nor do the Bruins have the perimeter athleticism to keep opposing guards out of the lane as was once their hallmark under Ben Howland.

The Middle Tennessee game was a microcosm of all that plagues the Bruins.

The backcourt shot 4 of 20 from behind the arc to bring UCLA's 3-point shooting on the season to an anemic 17.1 percent. The frontcourt missed Nelson's ability to score and rebound, especially in the second half when constant double teams and lack of conditioning seemed to diminish 300-pound center Joshua Smith's effectiveness in the post and on the glass. And at the other end, Middle Tennessee's guards drove by the Bruins at will, either making uncontested layups or kicking out to shooters open enough to knock down 10-of-11 3-pointers.

It would have been difficult to envision this three years ago when UCLA made its third straight Final Four and landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, but the Bruins haven't been the same since falling to Memphis in the 2008 national semifinals. {YSP:MORE}

They slipped in the Pac-10 standings and got clobbered by Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2009. They lost 18 games and missed the postseason altogether in 2010. And though they rebounded to win a first-round NCAA tournament game last March, any momentum generated is in jeopardy of slipping away with the loaded Maui Invitational up next and a nonconference matchup with Texas looming the first Saturday in December.

Early defections and transfers have been blamed for UCLA's dip, but in reality that is only part of the problem.

In addition to seemingly abandoning their emphasis on defense in recruiting, the Bruins have missed on a handful of top out-of-state prospects they targeted, and failed to find a suitable point guard since Darren Collison. As a result, they've had to scramble to patch holes in their roster by adding junior college guards Lazeric Jones and De'End Parker, and North Carolina transfers Larry Drew II and Travis and David Wear.

To his credit, Howland revamped his coaching staff in the past 15 months in an attempt to address the recruiting issues that have plagued the program since Kerry Keating left to become Santa Clara's head coach in 2007. The new assistants helped UCLA sign five-star point forward Kyle Anderson and have put the Bruins in contention for highly touted center Tony Parker and the nation's No. 1 prospect Shabazz Muhammad, but there's no guarantee those players will stay interested if the team's current struggles persist.

It's too early to throw dirt on UCLA's coffin this year, but it's clear the Bruins must try some different tactics to salvage their rapidly spiraling season.

Perhaps they could abandon Howland's trademark man-to-man and play some zone in hopes it better masks their defensive deficiencies. Or maybe it's time for a dose of perimeter athleticism in the form of more playing time for unproven newcomers Norman Powell and De'End Parker. Or conceivably the imminent return of reserve center Anthony Stover could provide UCLA a defensive presence in the middle that it has lacked.

Regardless of what route the Bruins choose, they need to find an answer fast. They'll be no better than 2-5 after the Texas game unless they spring an upset in Maui or against the Longhorns, an outcome that doesn't appear likely the way they're playing.

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