UCLA basketball is struggling out of the gate this season, but with a highly touted recruiting class that includes star forward Shabazz Muhammad, it is only a matter of time before this team puts it all together and turns their season around.
The Bruins’ loss to Georgetown is understandable in the sense that this is a young team that is still learning to play with each other, and Georgetown is an underrated team that has a fantastic player in Otto Porter.
That being said, though, there is no excuse for their most recent loss to Cal Poly.
Losing to the Mustangs at home in the new Pauley Pavilion was embarrassing for the Bruins, and head coach Ben Howland hopes that it serves as a lesson to a team that needs to turn it around immediately.
Last night’s embarrassing and surprising loss brought many of UCLA’s weaknesses and problems to light.
The Bruins have consistently had three main problems this season: They are not playing great defense, they are not putting games away when they are ahead and they lack a true leader to push this team to play its best.
Luckily for UCLA, now that Shabazz Muhammad has a few games under his belt, he is more than ready to alleviate these problems for the Bruins.
UCLA has struggled at the defensive end of the floor this season. While there have been good single-game performances from individuals, the overall team defense has not been up to par, even against lackluster opponents.
Take the Cal Poly loss for example. Last night, the Bruins allowed Cal Poly to shoot 44 percent from the field. This is better than the average field goal percentage of 39 percent they posted in their losses to TCU and Fresno State.
Ben Howland is known for coaching incredible team defenses, and this is one of the reasons he has had previous success in March.
“A ‘five as one’ defensive mentality usually takes longer to develop than a potent offense. UCLA has played good defense at times this season, but it has not been continuous and consistent, and it has not been the Bruins' calling card,” said ESPN’s Jay Bilas.
To be successful, UCLA will have to integrate Muhammad, a great defender, into the overall team defense.
Without a vast improvement in the defensive category, UCLA will be susceptible to further losses.
Another weakness that Shabazz Muhammad will look to eliminate with his play for the Bruins is the lack of a solid push to close basketball games.
In the Cal Poly loss, the Bruins coughed up an 18-point lead. The Mustangs were getting all the shots they wanted, and UCLA could have gotten their shots too.
The Bruins, however, did not seem to know what shot they wanted to take or who should take it.
Kyle Anderson is a great player, but he does not have the ability to take the game into his own hands towards the last two minutes of the game.
Muhammad, a prolific scorer that is already averaging 17 points per game, must take over if the Bruins are to be successful moving forward.
It is hard to blame the just recently eligible Muhammad for not being the team’s closer out of the gate. The fact of the matter is that he has only had a few games to feel out the offense.
If there was one positive takeaway from the loss to Cal Poly, it was that Muhammad appears to be comfortable in the Bruins offense. He knows when to take his shots, and if he can step up and take those shots down the stretch, he will give UCLA a great chance to win.
ESPN’s Andy Katz recently illuminated UCLA’s greatest weakness when he observed that he “didn't see a leader in watching two shootarounds and games last week in Brooklyn. The team does have veterans in Larry Drew II, David Wear and Travis Wear and Josh Smith. But no one person was the demonstrative voice in practice or in games.”
This role will likely be taken on by Shabazz Muhammad, who has the demeanor and talent to make him an effective leader for the Bruins.
UCLA’s other problems in team defense and clutch closing stem from their lack of a centralized voice to rally the team to the final whistle.
Muhammad was the center of a great deal of attention due to his eligibility investigation saga with the NCAA, and it would have been inappropriate for a player that had not played with the team to instantly claim the role of team leader.
After having played with the team and proven his mettle, Muhammad is ready to take up the mantle of team leader, and if he can rally this team around him, they can be the true contender that everyone believes they are.
UCLA will hope to solve these problems soon, and they will rely on Muhammad to do so.
With tough matchups with SDSU, Texas and Missouri on the horizon, now is the time for the Bruins to look to their star to turn the season around.
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