LOS ANGELES (AP) In the span of four surprising days, UCLA went from being a Top 25 team tabbed to win the Pac-12 title to unranked and 0-2. The Bruins have staggered out of the gate with double-digit losses to two mid-majors and the suspension of starter Reeves Nelson for his bad attitude.
The 0-2 start is their worst since 2002-03, when the school lost to San Diego and Duke to open coach Steve Lavin’s final season in Westwood. The Bruins lost their opener by 11 points to Loyola Marymount.
The latest setback was an 86-66 loss to Middle Tennessee State on Tuesday night in which the Blue Raiders shot 71 percent from the floor and made 10 of 11 3-pointers.
“Never seen that before,” big man Joshua Smith said. “It was kind of crazy when coach read the stats off.”
Coach Ben Howland called it “very embarrassing” to allow such a high shooting percentage, something he said none of his teams had ever done.
“We’re really a long way away from being a good team,” he said.
Things could get even worse next week, when UCLA plays in the Maui Invitational. The Bruins open Monday against Division II Chaminade, then will play either No. 12 Kansas or Georgetown. No. 6 Duke, 10th-ranked Memphis and No. 17 Michigan will be in the islands, too.
“It’s not really them,” Smith said about the competition. “It’s us we got to figure out.”
Howland first has to decide Nelson’s future. He and the junior forward were scheduled to meet later Wednesday.
Asked what he was looking for, Howland said, “Just an understanding that he’s got a lot of things that need to improve in terms of coachability, attitude, interacting with his teammates, representing the university.”
Howland met Monday with Nelson and his mother, with his father joining in by phone, and the outcome was Nelson’s indefinite suspension for what the coach called “conduct unbecoming.” Nelson’s attitude has varied greatly during his career, ranging from high-energy team player to petulant and pouting.
“I love Reeves and I hope he comes back,” said guard Jerime Anderson, who just returned from his own two-game suspension in connection with the theft of a laptop.
In their first two games, the Bruins have struggled offensively and defensively, leading Howland to reconsider the schemes he employs, including the possibility of playing zone.
“It doesn’t really matter what defense we play, it’s just going to take the effort of all five guys out there,” Smith said.
The Bruins find themselves in transition this season.
They lost their top two players, Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, to the NBA draft, and they’re playing away from Pauley Pavilion all season while it is renovated. Attendance for the first two games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena was down by a couple thousand from last year’s average, with a smaller crowd (4,758) Tuesday than at the opener.
Smith, point guard Lazeric Jones and Nelson (when he was playing) were working to integrate twin brothers David and Travis Wear into the offense, along with freshman Norman Powell. Jones was pressing in his first two games and got down on himself after the opening loss.
Smith, a 300-pounder, and the Wear twins are 6-foot-10, making for a frontline that was expected to dominate opponents. Instead, they’re getting beat on both ends of the floor.
“It’s just frustrating,” Smith said. “We’re still a good team. We’re still trying to figure out things right now.”
Normally, the Bruins would relish the prospect of a holiday week trip to Hawaii. But now the pressure is on to stop a downward spiral uncharacteristic of a program boasting a record 11 national titles and three consecutive trips to the Final Four as recently as 2008.
“I was excited to get out there, but it’s all business for us,” Anderson said. “We got to go out there to win games. We weren’t going out there to hang out on the beach or see pretty girls.”