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UCLA getting reality checks Struggling champions face Maryland today

ANAHEIM, CALIF. — ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Shock treatments began in paradise, of all places. When UCLA lost twice in the Maui Invitational last month, it was the first time the Bruins' feet touched ground since they cut the nets after their 11th national championship last April.

A year ago, UCLA lost two games all season. This year, they lost two in three days -- against the likes of Santa Clara and Vanderbilt.

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"I took winning for granted," said sophomore swingman Kris Johnson. "When we lose, I'm in shock. Big time. [But] we're a young team, and we lost our three most important players."

Defeat was the price the Bruins paid for losing the heart and soul of their championship team to the NBA. When Ed O'Bannon, Tyus Edney and George Zidek left, it turned the nation's best team into one of the nation's youngest teams.

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The Bruins (2-3) will start three sophomores, one freshman anone junior against 20th-ranked Maryland (3-2) today at The Pond in the Wooden Classic, after No. 2 Villanova takes on Purdue.

There is only one senior on the UCLA roster, and Kevin Dempsey has started just one game in his college career.

This is a team in transition. Five games into the season, leadership looms as the biggest void. The Bruins, after all, have a bevy of talented players.

"When you do not have leaders, it stands out much more than when you do," coach Jim Harrick said yesterday. "Leadership takes place in different forms -- in work ethic, the locker room, the airport, team meals.

"We were fortunate to have three very mature, very focused leaders last year. The difference in practice, the difference in the way we act and react is tremendous this year because we haven't found our identity quite yet.

"I don't know that we'll ever have maturity this year. But those things take time."

The Bruins seemingly were on the road to recovery last Saturday. They stormed past No. 1 Kansas to a 41-26 halftime lead -- and then came apart. They were outscored by a staggering 30 points in the second half to lose by 15. Just like that, the identity question became an identity crisis.

Two days later, UCLA dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time since January 1993.

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"The first half was a great indication of us playing as a team," said UCLA point guard Cameron Dollar, who played one season under Stu Vetter at St. John's of Prospect Hall in Frederick. "The second half we were getting our shots and they just weren't going in, and Kansas was hitting everything.

"It looks bad as far as them coming back, but we saw it as a positive game."

With Charles O'Bannon -- brother of Ed -- Dollar is one of two potential leaders. But compounding UCLA's problems, he will see only limited playing time in December.

Dollar, who filled in wonderfully for the injured Edney in last year's championship victory over Arkansas, tore a ligament in his right little finger in practice Nov. 8, but played through the pain. When he dislocated his left little finger against Kansas, Harrick decided to use Dollar sparingly until the start of the Pac-10 season.

The Bruins, meanwhile, play on, out of harmony. In contrast to last year's quiet confidence, they have become a swaggering bunch with lots of chest-bumping, finger-pointing and tongue-wagging. And a 2-3 record.

Harrick knows that time and experience will provide a solution.

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"I'm frustrated with our youth and exuberance," he said. "I want us to work hard, and they do. But learning takes time and great patience. I think this team takes a great amount of patience on my part.

"We'll straighten this train out yet."


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