Official UCLA statements on Josh Smith

Head coach Ben Howland: “Joshua is a fine young man who has meant a lot to this program. I know I speak for myself and my staff when I thank him for his time in Westwood and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Josh Smith: “I have made the decision to leave the program for personal reasons. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at UCLA and am grateful for the opportunity that has been presented to me here.”

This is a disappointing, if unsurprising end to Smith’s career. The junior center has to take the bulk for the blame for failing to get himself in shape, but what a mess Howland’s program has quickly become. Two transfers in four days? If players want to get away from you that badly, you probably won’t be around much longer either.

Freshman Tony Parker, who has averaged 8.4 minutes so far this season, will probably sop up some extra time on the court. He could probably double his playing time easily if it weren’t for the back spasms that have bothered him lately.

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Josh Smith leaving UCLA

UCLA center Josh Smith is transferring from UCLA, becoming the second Bruin to leave the program in less than a week.

According to BruinReportOnline, Smith told athletic director Dan Guerrero his decision Wednesday. The 6-foot-10 junior did not show up to practice Tuesday.

The once promising NBA prospect has struggled with weight after being named to the All-Pac-10 Freshman team. He reportedly was working to slim down over the offseason, but didn’t produce results — or look more svelte — when he stepped on the court. Through six games, he averaged 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 13.5 minutes. He averaged 10.9 points as a freshman and 9.9 as a sophomore.

His departure comes just three days after junior guard Tyler Lamb announced his intent to transfer. Lamb had played just 14 minutes this year after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, scoring four points in the season opener against Indiana State.

The team now has just eight scholarship players on its roster. Smith and Lamb were also the only players who had played in old Pauley Pavilion.

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UCLA defense lacking effort, players say

Blowing an 18-point lead can be done. But to do so in eight minutes, against a team that had never before made the NCAA tournament? That takes a special kind of defensive nonchalance.

The general consensus among the Bruins two days after their 70-68 loss to Cal Poly was the team simply didn’t try hard enough. There were some factors with the youth adjusting to the college game and learning defensive principles, but the bottom line for everyone seemed to be effort.

“When teams run ball screens, sometimes they’ll switch them and sometimes we’ll trail it,” said freshman Jordan Adams. “Sometimes we’ll get confused. (We need to) just play harder. There’s no excuses. We need to play harder.”

Some players said more zone defense would be a good addition to the playbook, but Adams maintained that the team had the talent and athleticism to run a man defense properly. It all just comes down to — you guessed it — effort.

Point guard Larry Drew said that looking at film from the Cal Poly loss, it looked like players were putting more effort in on the offensive end than defensive — something many viewers likely picked up on during the first viewing.

Asked if that lack of effort traced back to practice, he agreed.

“Sure,” Drew said, sighing after a long pause. “I guess you could say that it starts in practice. I don’t think we had our best practices leading up to the prior game. You practice how you want to play and I think it showed.”

Some of this again points back to Howland. In addition to not having his talented players pushing themselves at the peak, he said that the Bruins haven’t been able to run fast enough because opposing teams are playing slow, patient basketball. When you allow unranked teams to dictate the pace, you’re probably not in a great place.

Wake-up call?

An overtime win against UC Irvine two weeks back should have snapped the Bruins into their expected selves. Then they lost to Cal Poly, which was picked to finish four spots behind the Anteaters in the Big West preseason poll. With one-loss Cal State Northridge coming up Wednesday night, UCLA players said that they’re not about to let up against another team from that conference.

“I think we took the team real lightly,” said freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who added that he was only about 80 percent of the way to full game shape. “Just really thought we won the game. You can’t come out like that, even when we’re playing teams that are not as talented as us.”

Added Adams: “This was a huge wakeup call. UCI almost upset us, but we were still in the same mode. This definitely was a wakeup call.”

He added that Muhammad’s recent return helped them brush off the close call against the Anteaters. Can’t use that excuse anymore.

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Larry Drew keeps TOs down, but needs to speak up

Ben Howland emphasized that, while he is still tinkering with lineups, Larry Drew II is the team’s starting point guard. The UCLA head coach pointed out Drew’s assist-to-turnover ratio — which is currently an exemplary 6.29.

The team’s lone senior is also leading the Pac-12 with 7.2 assists per game, and dished out nine without a single giveaway in the Cal Poly loss.

“Even though, we are playing more of an up-tempo style game, it definitely is a slower pace than I was playing at North Carolina,” Drew said. “Even back in high school, my game in general was never really a 100-mile-per-hour guy, up and down the court.

“Every possession, I like to slow down at times and see the floor. Read things and use my speed and change of direction. I’m just more comfortable within this offense.”

Howland added that Drew’s assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the best he’s seen through what his now his 10th season in Westwood. Given that Drew’s career average there is exactly 2.00, it won’t be surprising if he dips from his current pace.

The one criterion is also not the greatest indicator of point guard prowess. Jerime Anderson’s assist-to-turnover ratio last season was 2.33. Darren Collison’s in 2008-09 was 1.91. A year before that, Russell Westbrook’s was 1.74.

Howland did remark that Drew’s personality doesn’t have him harping on his teammates as much as he should — something the player is working to improve.

“I tell the coaches all the time. Whatever they want me to do, to just make sure that they stay on me about it,” Drew said. “If it’s something on the court, off the court, being a leader, being more vocal. I want to do whatever it’s going to take for us to grow as a team.”

Drew, the team’s lone senior, is also one of the team’s three captains, with David and Travis Wear being the two others. All three are UNC transfers. Take that as you will.

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Pac-12 title shot: “We earned it.”

How do the Bruins bounce back to play a team that just beat them 35-17? Jim Mora credits youth and short memories.

“The two games we’ve lost this year, we’ve been able to come back and get a good win,” Mora said today. “Not necessarily an easy win, but a good win. I think that’s given them confidence going forward. I don’t think It’ll be an issue. I think they’ll be amped up and ready to go.”

That assertion reinforces the mood many players have given throughout the week. Tight end Joseph Fauria seemed locked in in the postgame press conference on Saturday; when one reporter was halfway through a question about the Pac-12 Championship, Fauria cut in: “We earned it.”

This is a team that, by all appearances, believes in itself wholeheartedly. Stanford coach David Shaw said in a teleconference Monday that one of his biggest concerns is fighting off any complacency. Conversely, UCLA’s biggest task was to knock away self doubt. Just the simple lack of an asterisk on their Pac-12 South title should help ensure that the Bruins aren’t about to roll over at Stanford Stadium on Friday.

“Last year, it was hard to get hyped for that game because we knew we didn’t really earn it,” said UCLA receiver Shaq Evans. “SC beat us pretty bad the week before. They were the true Pac-12 South champions.”

“We earned this one,” said defensive end Datone Jones. “That’s the big difference. Football’s football and we’re ready to go.”

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