Saturday, October 21

Old and new problems won’t go away for the Bruins

The Bruins are a bewildered bunch these days. Their facial expressions show it, their tone of voice rings of it, their play on the court screams of it.

How do you outrebound your opponent 46 to 25 and still lose?

How is it that each player on a team can shoot 100 mandatory free throws at practice, yet come game-time shoot an abysmal 50 percent from the line?

How can you continually allow turnovers to kill you ““ UCLA had a jaw-dropping 20 ““ and continually fail to eliminate them?

These are the questions coaches, players and fans are asking after the Bruins latest epic flounder against USC.

Let’s not be mistaken: USC is not very good either and did its best with 15 turnovers of its own to hand UCLA a win on Sunday.

But instead it was the same sad story yet again for UCLA, except that this one may have hurt just a little bit more because it was USC they lost to. The Bruins got swept by the Trojans for the first time since 2004, and lost for the first time ever in USC’s Galen Center.

“It just sucks,” senior Michael Roll chirped at me after the game.

“It is really frustrating,” added senior Nikola Dragovic. “And it hurts.” It makes sense that the two seniors feel strung. In a season of many firsts, this has never happened to them before. And at least in past years, the team has been able to correct its mistakes.

Not this year.

Things started bad when on UCLA’s second possession, senior forward Dragovic threw up a horrific fade-away 3-pointer early in the shot clock ““ exactly what coach Ben Howland has been imploring his team not to do.

Howland wants patience, Dragovic wants points.

He’d get a big fat 12 of them on 1-for-7 shooting beyond the arc. A missed dunk that called for two hands and an air ball 3 that hit the net instead of going through won’t show up on the box score labeled as such, but the mistakes were there for all to see.

Then there were defensive breakdowns. The perfect example came with more than eight minutes left in the game, USC in striking distance up only two, when the Bruins, in their zone, reminded Howland why he hates the zone so much.

The ball came in to Leonard Washington on the left block, and freshmen Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt moved that way ever so sluggishly after a momentary delayed reaction, by which point Washington had long since kicked the ball out to a wide open Donte Smith who nailed a 3 from the right corner. The defense on that play was lazy at best, inept at worse, all bad news for the Bruins.

Minutes later, with still more than three minutes remaining, Honeycutt found himself one-on-one with Marcus Johnson and instead of backing off once beaten, the freshman made a freshman mistake and let Johnson bowl into him. Honeycutt made a weak attempt at acting like it was a charge, and then he trudged to the bench, his night over with five fouls ““ his team’s night over without its best rebounder.

Then the iconic moment.

Up the court came sophomore guard Jerime Anderson, soft defensive pressure being applied from Johnson, UCLA miraculously down just four with 2:20 to go.

And Anderson, out for a Sunday stroll, gets his pocket picked by Johnson who slams it home. Anderson whines, out-acting Honeycutt. Howland takes a time out and promptly benches Anderson.

“I thought that we had a real shot there late in the game, we had an opportunity to win (but) the turnovers again plagued us,” said Howland, who must now feel like a broken record.

The stories written about this game, and probably about this team as a whole, will blame the losing on turnovers and free throws, and rightfully so. But UCLA suffers from a multiplicity of problems, some that keep recurring, some that sprout anew each game.

So how do you fix all the mistakes? “I wish I could tell you,” Roll said, shrugging. “I would be a great coach if I could. I don’t know.”

Nobody knows, Mike. That’s the problem.

E-mail Stevens at [email protected]

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