While motivational factors are certainly a significant factor in athletics I think there is a tendency to overstate their importance and to attribute to player motivation what is better explained by other factors such as talent, experience, coaching, and normal variance. In terms of explaining this so far disastrous season of UCLA basketball I think that by far the most important factor is the lack of talent or the lack of developed talent (talent and experience). A lot of excellent posts are focusing on the recruiting, and I think this is the heart of the matter.
There are several problems with attributing poor play to motivational factors such as a lack of effort. First of all I think it's usually a faulty explanation. If you have a team that loses badly because of a lack of talent it certainly is a mistake to attribute this to a lack of effort or a lackadaisical attitude on the part of the players. It provides the illusion that if only the players really gave it their all they could still be winning most of their games. Worst of all it makes the accusation against less talented players that they have some kind of character flaw as if they are here on a scholarship representing their school, but they just don't really care and lack pride. It also just doesn't make sense to me that division I college athletes somehow would lack motivation. Basketball is central to their life, and they probably all came here with at least some hope of playing in the NBA. I think they all have a great deal of motivation to play well. An exception might be a highly disgruntled player or an overall lack of team morale.
What does motivation have to do with shooting accurately? Are there actually basketball players who don't really care whether they make a shot or not? (Reminds me of that excellent post here on how the TV commentators were saying that Texas's receivers now had to make sure they caught the passes of Texas's backup quarterback in the national championship game as if they might not have been fully trying before). If a team is not playing well they may look flat and like they aren't fully trying, but I don't think this is usually the case. Sometimes the motivation factor can even be used as an excuse such as Alabama getting blown out by Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, because they supposedly didn't really care even though they were playing on national television and representing their college, their conference, and themselves as individuals playing in front of NFL scouts. The real reason they lost is because Utah had too much team speed for them and was just a better team. Also sometimes the highest motivation in some athletes can lead to overly high anxiety and diminished performance.
I'm not saying that there isn't such a thing as playing with heart like our football team did at Tennessee particularly on defense. But that's not going to be enough without real developed talent, and there was an enormous amount of talent on our defense including three All Americans. When they lost the first five conference games I don't think it was because of a lapse in motivation but because they were playing really good offensive teams and our offense was relatively weak. And I know there are players like LMR who do play with a tremendous amount of heart, but he did have some real talent as a defensive player. However if our past teams didn't have players beyond LMR's talent level I don't think we would have gone to any final fours. I'm also not saying there isn't such a thing as mental toughness, but that's a bit different and relates more to being able to play your best under the greatest pressure.
In terms of our current basketball team we can already see one huge tangible difference having to do with talent/experience, and that is at point guard. Ben Holland's previous teams have had in Jordan Farmer and Darren Collison two of the very best point guards in all of college basketball. Both of them are very elite talents who are now playing very well in the NBA. The drop this year at this position alone is enough to cause a major decline in the team's performance. And players like AA and RW don't just have a good work ethic but have enormous talent. We just don't have players at that kind of talent level right now or if we do they aren't fully developed yet. I don't think you can fault the coaching other than the recruiting, because with talented players Ben Howland is a proven success. I agree with many of you that the core problem has to be in the recruiting. I don't know how he recruited the right players for so many years yet has apparently missed so badly recently. But I think it's pretty clear that is what has happened.