When this iconic basketball program was last looked at, it was more or less in chaos.
Playing their home games in the crumbling Los Angeles Sports Arena while Pauley Pavilion was being renovated, their all-conference forward, who was on the cover of last season’s Sports Illustrated college basketball preview, was kicked off the team after seven games for being a bully and a total cancer to his teammates and his coaches, and for generally not being a good guy overall.
After losing five of those first seven games with Reeves Nelson, UCLA managed a respectful 17-9 record without him to end up with 19 wins, but not without a bit more controversy as Sports Illustrated published an article, “Not the UCLA Way”, that basically exposed the team’s problems with the attitudes of Nelson and certain other players, as well as the harsh style of coach Ben Howland, who’s entering his tenth season in Westwood.
The end of last year couldn’t have come fast enough for the Bruins, who needed some good fortune to come their way – which it did in the form of signing the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class, which includes guard Jordan Adams from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and McDonald’s All-Americans Tony Parker, Kyle Anderson, and Shabazz Muhammad, who was the number two recruit in the country.
Unfortunately Muhammad, from Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High, is waiting to be cleared by the NCAA due to some recruiting issues pertaining to his AAU team and a friend of his family, and it will take a while for him to take the court – he may not play at all, the way the NCAA investigators are taking their time – but the other heralded freshmen are ready to go as well as Pauley Pavilion, which recently had a grand reopening and looks absolutely incredible.
And they will be needed to complement a core that gave a good effort overall, but were too distracted with a few of them having issues of their own.
Larry Drew II, a senior who transferred from North Carolina, is expected to be the Bruins’ point guard. He played three years for the Tar Heels, contributing to their national championship in 2009 as a freshman and starting 53 games for them during his time in Chapel Hill. His six assists per game in 2010, the last year he played before coming West, was a career high, so it’s safe to say that UCLA is getting someone good.
Tyler Lamb will look to improve from his nine points per game and 35.8% average from the three-point line, and Anderson will provide a much needed boost at guard.
As for the Bruins’ front court, they will go as far as Josh Smith’s lack of weight will take them.
After a solid freshman season, the 6′ 10″ junior center backslid as his weight and conditioning became a significant issue. His 9.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game will have to go up if UCLA is to made noise in the Pac-12 Conference and nationally. Bruin Nation will be looking closely at the Kent, WA native to see how hard he worked during the summer and how much he improves this season.
Parker, who averaged 16.8 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocked shots a game for his high school last year, will get some playing time; how much playing time will depend on how well Smith performs as one of the reasons Parker was signed was to push Smith.
The Wear twins, David and Travis, did a solid job at forward in 2011-12. Travis led the Bruins in points per game with 11, with his brother David being the leading rebounder with 6.3 a contest. They did their utmost best to pick up the slack left by Nelson and deserve A-pluses for their efforts, but they were – and are – not the go-to type of players that teams need to carry them, which is a big part of what makes a championship team.
The upside to Lamb, Smith, and the Wear twins is that they are expected to get better, and after enduring what they endured last season, I believe they will, with a number two recruiting class and a shiny new Pauley Pavilion complete with a statue of the great coach John Wooden outside its doors – which will officially return to active duty with their season opener against Indiana State on November 9 after a $136 million renovation that took a year and a half – to showcase their efforts.
After some much-needed bonding in China this summer, where they played and won three exhibition games, a date with Texas in Houston’s Reliant Stadium on December 8 and a game with highly regarded San Diego State in the John R. Wooden Classic in Anaheim’s Honda Center the week before that highlight UCLA’s non-conference schedule, and Arizona will be the opponent they will be in a dogfight with in the Pac-12 Conference.
Here’s how I see things unfolding with these Bruin hoopsters, who start the season ranked 13th:
With a top-notch class of freshmen and a sense of determination from their returning players, there’s no way that UCLA will lose 14 games again this year; heck, winning 19 games while dealing with all the muck they had to deal with last year was an accomplishment and a tribute of how much talent is on that team.
As for how far these Bruins will go, they can easily be contenders for the Final Four – particularly if Muhammad gets cleared as he is a game changer – or they could fall well short of expectations if things go wrong for them again.
As such, I predict that these UCLA Bruins will win between 20-25 games and definitely make the NCAA Tournament. How far they go in the Big Dance will depend on how much they improve from last season and how much they grow as a team.
I won’t sugarcoat things here; this will be a very important year for UCLA basketball, one where these Bruins will be at a crossroads as they enter their 94th season.
The future of this program, as well as Howland, may well depend on how these Bruins perform this season, and it will be very interesting to see how things unfold in the sparkling new Pauley.