The Front-Runner Mentality

UCLA embarrassed itself when it was beaten soundly by a poor St. John's team, Saturday, 71-55. Not only does this team have average talent, it's showing that it has less-than average competitiveness and heart...

In losing to a lowly St. John's team Saturday, 71-55, it's now pretty clear to see what's happened to this team.

In winning nine of its first 12 games, the Bruins were doing it mostly with defense and rebounding. While it helps to be quick and athletic when it comes to defense and rebounding, so much of it is also heart and desire.

Now they've lost five in a row and are in a tailspin. It's very improbable that they could get a NCAA tournament bid at this point. The season seems to be spinning out of control. And it's due to one thing. They've stopped playing effective defense and have stopped rebounding because they've lost their heart and desire.

There is a question of just how much they had in the first place this season. But whatever degree of it they did have, they've lost it now.

The turning point was the blow-out loss to Arizona January 17th. Leading up to that game, the Bruins were 9-3, 5-0 in the Pac-10 and in sole possession of first place in the conference. Their offense had sputtered but they had shut down every team defensively they had faced, including Kentucky, Oregon and Michigan State. But when Arizona ran them off the court, ever since they haven't played good defense and have rebounded poorly. That loss seems to have so demoralized this team that they lost that heart and desire, thus have lost their aggressiveness to play defense and rebound, and have, thus, lost every game since.

What could it have been that so demoralized them in that loss against Arizona? A very likely explanation was that this team just doesn't have the fighter mentality. It's made up of some players who were well-hyped out of high school and came from high school programs that were loaded and beat just about everybody handily. They've never had to scratch and claw for anything in their basketball careers so far, never had an underdog chip on their shoulder. It's the front-runner mentality.

The former coaching staff didn't do much to toughen them up mentally. The season a year ago probably also wreaked havoc with their psyches.

So, it's not unlikely that, when they were 9-3 and 5-0 they started to actually delude themselves into believing they were pretty good. Whatever edge they had in trying to prove themselves had taken them to 9-3 and 5-0, but that's all the fight this horse had. When faced with the harsh reality that they are not near as good as Arizona or Stanford in two successive games, this horse packed it in. No heart and effort equals no defense and no rebounding.

Yes, this team isn't very talented. It's probably the fifth- or sixth-most talented team in the Pac-10 this year. We can't always assume, because of history, that anyone wearing "UCLA" on his chest is a talented player. Get used to it – at least for a while. It's the supreme legacy that Steve Lavin left UCLA fans – their harsh reality of their own, realizing that being a UCLA player does not mean what it used to mean.

How head coach Ben Howland and this coaching staff has reacted – and will react – will be interesting. The team has given up on the season, obviously, and the fans look to have given up on the team. But the real intriguing aspect, the real value of the rest of the season, is to see how Howland, in just his first year at UCLA, will react. Howland is known for being a taskmasker. He has a reputation for demanding his players put out superior effort and not accepting anything less. It has seemed, though, that he hasn't done as much as you might think, given that well-earned reputation, to motivate this team. And it can't be by chance, but must be by design. Howland knows what he's doing. He's been down this road before, turning around two other programs that had hit bottom. He's dealt with heartless players and those that don't want to put out an effort. It's almost certain that Howland, even though at times it might not be evident, has a plan. After the St. John's game Howland talked about making changes. It's believed he'll give more playing time to the players that put out more effort, regardless of who has more talent.

It's time.

Yes, this is a group of players that doesn't have the usual talent to be wearing UCLA on their chest. But, at this point, regardless of their talent, many don't have the heart that makes them worthy of wearing the uniform. While UCLA fans might have to come to terms with the fact that not all UCLA players aren't going to be elite talents (at least for a short while), it's not too much to expect that players with UCLA on their chest give a better effort than what we've seen in the last five games.

We welcome Janou Rubin and Josiah Johnson getting more playing time. While they don't have the talent level of typical UCLA players, they do have the heart and desire that makes them worthy of wearing the UCLA uniform.

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