Zach LaVine seizes UCLA’s unofficial dunk title

The Bruins have a new dunk champion. Last year, Norman Powell had clearly staked that title. Now, he’s been dethroned by true freshman Zach LaVine.

“The way he dunks the ball, no question,” sophomore Kyle Anderson said. “I wouldn’t put anybody in the conference up with him.”

According to Anderson, Powell may still be slightly better at finishing a stiffly contested dunk. When it comes to freestyling, however, LaVine has the edge.

UCLA’s point forward recalled a scrimmage at Pauley Pavilion over the summer. While sitting behind the basket, he watched LaVine turn rise up from outside the circle on a fast break, dunking under a defender before coming back up and finishing.

“It was one of the best dunks I’ve ever seen,” Anderson said.

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Norman Powell says UCLA ‘closer’ this year


Junior guard Norman Powell said this year’s UCLA squad feels closer than it did last season.

“We’re doing more team-building activities, which means a lot more time together,” said Powell, who thought about transferring out until Ben Howland was fired. “Everybody’s helping one another. The freshmen don’t feel left out. … We’re closer as a family.”

But what team-building activities? “Pass the orange” was one.

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Norman Powell talks about decision to stay at UCLA

Since April, shooting guard Norman Powell has indicated multiple times that he thought about transferring to San Diego State had UCLA not fired Ben Howland.

On Wednesday, Powell said he likely would have stayed no matter who replaced the former coach.

“I’m not going to say too much about how I felt about Howland,” Powell added. “He’s a great coach and I learned a lot. I’ve gotten better since I came here as a freshman. He did a great job helping me with my defense, making my shot better. But I definitely wanted to see a change.”

He had heard about Steve Alford from Glen Worley, a coach at San Diego’s Lincoln High who once played for Alford at Iowa. However, Powell said his conversation with Worley had no bearing on his decision to stay or transfer.

The rising junior said the main difference between Alford and Howland was that the former felt “more in tune” with the players. He also quelled any lingering fears fans may have about big man Tony Parker not returning to UCLA: “He’s staying. He’s staying. Tony’s staying.”

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Notes from Steve Alford’s official introduction

UCLA did its best to give new coach Steve Alford a warm welcome, rolling out a grand stage for him on the Pauley Pavilion floor Tuesday at noon. Here’s the full scene from the day as well as a photo gallery featuring Shaquille O’Neal, but these are the main highlights. Continue reading

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UCLA 79, Cal 65: Bruins’ defense no longer ‘horrible’

For the first time this season, UCLA can credit a win to its defense. Cal shot below 40 percent, and its top two scorers were held to an abysmal first-half outing that created too deep a hole.

“It means a lot,” Shabazz Muhammad said. “We’re an offensive team. … It really sets our team up for a good outing in the Pac-12.”

Ben Howland said earlier this week that the Bruins’ defense was “horrible” five or six weeks ago — something that no longer looks to be the case after the Pac-12 opener. During its winning streak, UCLA also held both Texas and Prairie View A&M to below 40 percent, but the former was unspeakably sloppy while the latter was barely a Division-I caliber team. (The Bruins’ 3-point defense had been particularly abysmal.) Continue reading

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UCLA 82, CSUN 56: A post-Smith world

LOS ANGELES — In beating Cal State Northridge 82-56, UCLA finally played the way it was supposed to against the Big West. The Bruins still had sloppy moments on both ends of the court, but after recent debacles against Cal Poly and UC Irvine, the Wednesday night victory appeared to be a long stride forward.

But the news everyone wanted to discuss was the departure of Josh Smith, the second player to leave the program in four days. (Tyler Lamb announced his intent to transfer on Sunday.) Ironically, Smith was plastered all over the cover of the game program.

UCLA now has just eight scholarship players on its roster. And with Tony Parker’s sprained ankle, they may even have just seven available against San Diego State on Saturday.

Program gone wrong? Quote of the night, courtesy of Shabazz Muhammad: “I think Ben is the perfect guy for us.”

The players, predictably enough, tried to dismiss any talk of bad locker room chemistry. Travis Wear said that the guys all like each other and hang out together. Norman Powell said that UCLA will continue to be a top destination for recruits.

But it’s hard to argue against the recent exodus, all since 2008: Chace Stanback (UNLV), Drew Gordon (New Mexico), Mike Moser (UNLV), Matt Carlino (BYU), J’Mison Morgan (Baylor), Brendan Lane (Pepperdine), De’End Parker (USF), Anthony Stover, Reeves Nelson. Some were dismissals, but the sheer number is still stunning.

At this point, the Bruins have effectively cleared the roster of anyone involved with the program during the time documented by Sports Illustrated. The main holdover? Ben Howland.

Shed weight: It’s easy to make jokes about how much thinner the Bruins are in the frontcourt without Josh Smith. Travis Wear even made a few puns in the postgame press conference, although those could have very well been unintentional.

Smith hasn’t contributed much on the court, his numbers declining each year since his All-Pac-10 Freshman introduction that ended with a third-round NCAA loss to Florida. His 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game are hardly irreplaceable. (His career, both the good and the bad, are summed up well in this airballed layup. Skilled enough to take the ball upcourt, too heavy to finish.)

But just who exactly will replace them? The obvious candidate is Tony Parker, but he was bothered by back spasms last week and sprained his ankle during Wednesday’s warm-ups. He ended the game with a boot on his left foot, playing just one minute. Howland said the trainer didn’t believe the injury to be serious.

With no true big men available, UCLA was able to run a relatively effective up-tempo offense for the first time this season. Playing CSUN helped, of course, but there still were moments like Muhammad shaking a defender to go up for a dunk. Or a wild sequence that saw Norman Powell tipping the ball away at halfcourt, Jordan Adams diving to the ground to grab it before flipping it to Larry Drew, and Drew then swinging an alley-oop pass up to Powell.

Zone defense: Howland confirmed that the team will indeed play more zone defense, although it will not completely abandon man-to-man. Nearly every player looked more capable in the zone, but Kyle Anderson stood out in particular. His utilized his length well and didn’t have to fight through screens. The result was three steals and two blocks — all in the first half.

The caveat is that Cal State Northridge was having an absolutely atrocious shooting night. The Matadors front-rimmed shots from all over the court, from uncontested 3-pointers to running floaters. Few teams will be so kind as to convert just 32.9 percent of their shots.

Starting lineup: Ben Howland said he put both Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew in the starting lineup because he expected more pressure and wanted both his ballhandlers on the court. He then continued to emphasize that the starting five doesn’t matter that much because everyone will get minutes. (This is especially true now that Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb are both gone.) Jordan Adams also started for the first time, but didn’t see an uptick in looks: 8 points on 3/5 shooting.

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Anderson has bone contusion, is game-time decision for Thursday

Freshman point forward Kyle Anderson will be a game-time decision for UCLA’s Thursday night game against James Madison. He was tested Wednesday after injuring his hand Tuesday night; preliminary results from an X-ray were negative, and an MRI indicated a bone contusion.

Anderson left briefly in the first half of the 80-79 overtime win over UC Irvine after he dove for a loose ball and landed on his right hand. Bruins head coach Ben Howland said that in watching film, he noticed that Anderson tripped over a cameraman’s foot on the baseline. Unlike photographers, the cameraman shot video was permitted to position himself closer to the court.

“I don’t like that rule at this point,” Howland said. “That’s not a UCLA rule, that’s a conference rule.”

Anderson shot just 2 of 7 from the free throw line against the Anteaters.

Junior guard Tyler Lamb, who is recovering from knee surgery, is also a game-time decision for Thursday’s tipoff against JMU.

Other notes:

— Four-star recruit Zach LaVine, who committed to UCLA in June, has officially signed his letter of intent. The 6-foot-4 combo guard out of Washington’s Bothell High is expected to play more of a shooting guard role next year, although Larry Drew’s graduation and Anderson’s potential departure for the NBA draft leaves a gap at the one spot.

“He is going to be a very good player,” Howland said. “Can really shoot it. … He’s got a lot of upside. He went from 6 feet going into his junior year and is now about 6-foot-4 going into his senior year.”

— Although the Bruins held UC Irvine to 39.7 percent from the field, their defensive performance was still a patchwork affair. The Anteaters shot 10 of 22 from beyond the arc, including two in the final three minutes that gave them a two-point lead. If it weren’t for Jordan Adam’s late free throws — and UCI’s subsequent missed free throws — UCLA likely would have lost in regulation.

“Our sense of urgency on defense was not great,” Howland said. “You could see the freshmen are all learning stuff for the first time. That last 3-point shot by (Michael) Wilder, Jordan had no clue. That guy was curling around and got a wide open three. These freshmen are going to make a lot of mistakes defensively. Kyle’s trying to learn how to play defense at this level for this first time. Everybody made mistakes.”

— The Bruins were outrebounded 51-39 Tuesday night, and were beat 16-8 on the offensive boards.

“Norman (Powell) continues to leak out on the shot like we’ve got Patrick Ewing down there rebounding for us,” Howland said. “That’s not the case. There was a lot of scramble situations. They beat us to a lot of those. Again, credit Irvine.”

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VIDEO: Pauley Madness

If you weren’t allowed into Pauley Pavilion last night, here are some shots from the festivities.

This is the Daily News’ HTML5-compatible media player.


You can see Shabazz Muhammad dunking just after the 2:00 mark. Ben Howland said Muhammad’s shoulder is still sore, but the freshman didn’t look banged up during warm-ups. Center Josh Smith said afterward that the team is preparing to open the season with the assumption that their star freshman won’t be available.

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