An upset loss and the departures of two players in three days marked one of the rockiest weeks in UCLA basketball history.
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Coach Ben Howland said he plans to ”coach my tail off” to help steady the turbulence surrounding a team that boasted one of the nation’s top recruiting classes this season but lost to Cal Poly and fell out of the Top 25 this week.
”It’s not fun,” junior Travis Wear said about the program’s recent controversies. ”I’d like to just be able to focus on basketball and not have these issues occur. We still have a lot of talented pieces. I think we could go far this year.”
The Bruins bounced back from a 70-68 loss to the Mustangs by routing Cal State Northridge 82-56 on Wednesday night, hours after center Joshua Smith said he was quitting the team for undisclosed personal reasons. Last Sunday, the same day the Bruins were beaten, guard Tyler Lamb said he was leaving over a lack of playing time.
”I was surprised, shocked,” Howland said about Smith’s departure. ”He talked to me about battling personal issues. He had made up his mind when he came to meet me this morning.”
Smith averaged 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds while playing 13.5 minutes a game in UCLA’s six games this season. The junior started 24 of 65 games during his first two seasons, which were marked by struggles with weight and conditioning. In an odd bit of timing, Smith was featured on the cover of the game program.
”Josh can be a really good player,” Howland said.
Travis Wear said he was surprised to find out Smith had quit.
”He struggled with his weight a little bit but I think it was a personal decision he and his family made,” Wear said, adding that there was no dissension among the team. ”We have great team chemistry. We all genuinely like each other.”
Norman Powell added, ”It does hurt the team and what we want to do this year.”
Howland said Smith didn’t talk to him about transferring, while Lamb ”wanted playing time and he was worried about that.”
With the departures, Howland said he would go with an eight-man rotation, with junior Sooren Derboghosian and sophomore David Brown as the ninth and 10th players. Freshman Tony Parker, who sprained his ankle in warm-ups, will get more minutes, too.
Powell led four players in double figures with 17 points against Northridge.
Kyle Anderson added a career-high 15 points and Larry Drew II had a career-high 13 assists for the Bruins (5-2). On Sunday, Powell lost track of the score and mistakenly committed a late foul that led to two winning free throws by Cal Poly.
”I made a mistake last game and my thing was to forget about it,” he said.
Travis Wear scored 14 points and Shabazz Muhammad had 13 points, nine rebounds and five of UCLA’s 16 turnovers in his fourth collegiate game. Howland started four guards alongside forward Travis Wear to give the Bruins stronger ball handling and they played zone.
”UCLA’s zone threw us off a little bit,” Northridge coach Bobby Braswell said. ”We were expecting it, but we didn’t expect that they would use it all 40 minutes. We didn’t attack it right. UCLA got out and ran and it’s a lot easier to do that from a zone.”
Stephan Hicks scored 11 points and Landon Drew, the younger brother of Larry, added 10 points to lead Northridge (6-2), which fell to 1-7 against the Bruins in a series that began in 1992.
The younger Drew said he prepared to play against his brother by reading about NFL quarterback brothers Eli and Peyton Manning.
”I have the utmost respect for him because he is my older brother, but when I got on the court there was no holding back,” Landon Drew said. ”It was either him or me.”
Northridge never threatened in the second half after trailing 38-24 at halftime. UCLA opened the second half on a 13-2 run that extended its lead to 51-26. Jordan Adams and Powell hit consecutive 3-pointers while Powell had two other baskets in the spurt.
The Bruins shot 62 percent from the floor in the second half, and they outrebounded the Matadors 47-35 and scored 24 points off Northridge’s 16 turnovers. UCLA’s largest lead was 28 points with 4:26 remaining.