The Bruins have started the season 0-2 with losses to two mid-major teams, and the fact that the Maui Invitational has teams such as Duke, Kansas and Georgetown doesn't bode well for the Bruins. Fortunately for Ben Howland's Bruins, they open against host Chaminade University from Honolulu. The Silver Swords are a Division II program, but one that has had a penchant for pulling off upsets of name D-1 programs in this tournament, with their most famous victory being against a Ralph Sampson-led Virginia squad in the early ‘80s.
This game isn't about the opposition, though. The Bruins have been through two ugly losses, the suspensions of Jerime Anderson and Reeves Nelson, and the injury to Anthony Stover. This game is really about the Bruins and the chemistry and cohesion they show (or don't show).
UCLA doesn't necessarily have any chemistry issues, per se, but it's not as if everything is rosy within the program. Nelson's suspension for behavior unbecoming a member of the Bruin basketball team is a possible source of tension. Assuming the players like Nelson and were and are behind him with their support, that could mean that the players aren't listening to Howland or at least will begin to tune him out. Conversely, if the players feel the suspension was warranted then they certainly will be watching Nelson to see his behavior in the days and weeks to come and how Howland handles that behavior if and when Nelson again crosses the line. Finally, as with most situations in life, what if some players believe Howland made the right decision in suspending Nelson while others support the junior forward? Then there could be a truly split locker room. I want to make this clear: I don't know any of these scenarios to be true, however, to not be aware that they are possible is to naively look at the state of the players within the program, and of Howland himself.
Winning tends to make all blemishes within a program go away, or at least become less noticeable. On the other hand, losing magnifies those same blemishes. While neither perception if typically factually correct, there is something to the saying that perception is reality. It would be different if the Bruins had their 0-2 start come at the hands of North Carolina and Ohio State. For Bruin fans and the Bruins themselves, the losses would be relatively understandable. However, the Bruin losses came against Loyola Marymount (who was without its best player) and Middle Tennessee State (who was without its best player), thus causing the Bruins and their fans to rightfully look at what's wrong with the team. If the Bruins start believing in themselves, which against MTSU they clearly didn't do, then they will be on a road back to respectability. That should be more than enough to get them by Chaminade.
The Bruins face questions about their tactical decisions in terms of the defense they play and the personnel that Howland chooses to put on the floor. UCLA will be bolstered by the return of sophomore post Anthony Stover, clearly the team's best interior defensive player and perhaps the team's best defender overall. However, the question needs to be asked whether Howland will put his best defensive players on the floor as a unit for extended minutes. While fans can argue the finer points of whether those players include Anderson, Lazeric Jones, Norman Powell, De'End Parker, Tyler Lamb, etc., one really can't argue with the fact that a defensively adequate line-up won't include both of the Wear twins or David Wear playing the three spot. The question is whether Howland will see things the same way as many fans do.
That's quite a few issues that need to be successfully answered or navigated for the Bruins to start righting the ship, as it were. It's not as if the Bruins aren't capable of doing what's necessary to do that quickly. Remember that the Bruins beat CSSB relatively easily in UCLA's lone official exhibition game. The Bruins also defeated Cal State Fullerton in a closed scrimmage. Both of those teams could be better than LMU and are arguably as good as MTSU, so there is obviously something the Bruins are doing (or not doing) that has collectively gotten them to this point.
In his last press conference, Howland mentioned the dreaded zone defense for the first time this season. While this is reminiscent of the 2009 season when the Bruins simply couldn't play proper man defense and Howland had to go to a zone almost exclusively, it is very different simply because Howland won't be playing Nikola Dragovic, who was simply awful on the defensive end no matter what system Howland tried to install. The question is whether or not Howland really will install it and have it in his arsenal or whether its simply coach-speak on his part.
The Bruins certainly shouldn't need the zone against Chaminade. While Coach Eric Bovaird's Silver Swords are a solid D-II program, they simply aren't in the same league as CSSB or MTSU, or even LMU. The Silver Swords lack quickness, at least the kind of quickness that has killed the Bruins in their first two games. Bovaird will start a three-guard line-up of juniors Waly Coulibaly (6'3" 180 lbs.) and Bennie Murray (6'4" 170 lbs.), as well as freshman Lee Bailey (6' 180 lbs.). Bailey is the point guard and gets to the free throw line a fair amount but neither he nor his backcourt mates have the kind of quickness necessary to consistently force the defensive breakdowns on the help side like the Bruins suffered through during the first two games.
Chaminade has no real size, either. Senior Matt Cousins (6'8" 235 lbs.) is a high level D-II player, but facing Stover, Nelson and Josh Smith will be, by far, the biggest challenge that Cousins has faced this season. Offensively Cousins is a relatively dangerous threat because he can consistently hit the three. That will force whoever is guarding him to stay with him all the way to the arc, thus conceivably opening things up in the lane for Cousins' teammates. Defensively, however, Cousins could be in early foul trouble, especially if the Bruins rediscover how to consistently get the ball into the paint to Smith and Nelson.
After Cousins, Brovaird has one 6'8 player, freshman Casey Oldemoppen, who barely plays, and two 6'6" players in freshman Darko Vukasovic, who plays quite a bit, and senior Rashaad Ubah, who hasn't played yet this season. Obviously the Bruins must pound the ball down low because, if they do, this game will be over early and the Bruins can watch the Kansas/Georgetown match-up and hope those two teams beat the stuffing out of each other.
However, Chaminade does have a puncher's chance at winning this game. The Silver Swords take a lot of three pointers, and as the Bruins and their fans have seen in the first two games, the opposition has a tendency to make a high percentage of threes against UCLA. If that happens in this game, and it will more than likely be the result of the Bruins simply not taking Chaminade seriously, then the Bruins could very likely lose. It's not hard to see the Bruins mentally packing it in if a team gets hot from distance yet again against UCLA's defense. This is the kind of situation where the chemistry issues I raised at the beginning of this preview could show up in a very negative way.
There is a very well-known saying: You have to walk before you run. That's the case for this game. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic that Howland and the players will positively address all the issues I've raised. I fully expect a focused Bruin squad (especially if Stover gets big minutes), at least for the beginning of the game. The Bruins will finally play an opponent who doesn't make 90% of their 3-point shots and UCLA gets a relatively easy and needed victory. If Chaminade goes cold from distance and/or Cousins gets in early foul trouble then don't be surprised by a total blowout. Since the Bruins need to learn to walk, let's say that they win relatively comfortably after the Silver Swords get hot from distance and UCLA goes through an effort letdown sometime in this game.