Nelson, Bruins Continue Push For Postseason
by Ryan Eshoff
For UCLA basketball to be successful - and indeed the Bruins are marching towards an NCAA tournament berth and a top-3 finish in the Pac-10 - it will need the talented yet temperamental Reeves Nelson to bring both toughness and maturity.
Nelson is one of the conference's best finishers around the rim, and at his best, he is a guy with contagious tenacity. With Steve Lavin and St. John's in town for what was arguably UCLA's biggest game of the season February 5, the sophomore scored 12 points and pulled down 17 rebounds in a Bruin victory.
"Anytime an East Coast school comes into the West Coast, they're going to try and bully you," said Nelson, a sophomore. "I was really proud of the team for standing up and being tough."
Those sound like the words of a guy who has far too often been the vanguard when it comes to matching the opponent's intensity and ferocity.
Not surprisingly, as Reeves Nelson has gone, so has gone UCLA.
The bruising win over St. Johns - the Bruins shot 41 free throws in the victory - capped a weekend that began with a victory over USC, during which Nelson drew the one-on-one defensive assignment of Trojan star Nikola Vucevic for the latter portion of the second half. Vucevic failed to score during that stretch.
"He wanted that challenge and he accepted it and did a great job for us," Howland said of Nelson. "Vucevic is so hard to guard one-on-one and that's one of the reasons I was so pleased with Reeves."
The end of the 2010-2011 season could mark an intriguing transitional period for Nelson and the Bruins. Before the season began, Howland dubbed Nelson, sophomore Tyler Honeycutt, and junior Malcolm Lee his "core players."
Of the three, Nelson is the only one whose name doesn't come up in NBA draft rumors. However slight, there is a chance that he will be the only one of the three on next year's squad, meaning an even more mature Reeves will have to be on display.
One thing Nelson doesn't need to learn to do is rebound, perhaps the most accurate statistical quantifier of toughness. Thanks to performances like his 17-board effort against the Red Storm, the 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward is currently ranked second in the Pac-10 in rebounding.
"We know how good of a rebounding team we can be," Honeycutt said. "Me and Reeves have a knack for going for the ball."
Howland has taken notice, and has consequently been more experimental with his lineups. Of late, the Bruin coach has often gone with Nelson at center and Honeycutt at power forward to complement a three-guard backcourt.
UCLA has played some of its best basketball with that unit on the floor, although it all hinges on the undersized Nelson's ability to handle the paint. So far, he's been up to the challenge. And his teammates are following suit.