Although quite a few UCLA fans are not satisfied with how things have gone with the Bruins’ basketball team, I will bet anything that if someone told them at the beginning of the season that Ben Howland’s team would be 12-3 with a 2-0 start in Pac-12 conference play at the season’s halfway point, they would have smiles a mile wide.
It seems like the losses to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at home on Thanksgiving weekend and to San Diego State in the John Wooden Classic on December 1, which dropped their record to 5-3, woke up the Bruins as they have not lost a game since then, winning their last seven straight including a 68-60 win over Stanford on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
Shabazz Muhammad, after missing the first few games due to suspension and starting off a bit rusty and out of shape, has worked hard on his conditioning and has showed Bruin Nation why he was one of the top high school recruits in the country as the freshman from Las Vegas had 23 points and ten rebounds in the Stanford game, and leads UCLA with 19.6 points per contest.
It is universally hoped that Muhammad will spend more than one year in Westwood, but the way he’s playing right now it looks more and more like he will be, as predicted when he signed with the Bruins, a one-and-done.
Jordan Adams, a fellow freshman who is part of UCLA’s stellar recruiting class, has done very well as his 16.6 points per game is second on the team, and veteran Travis Wear has likewise done well as the role player that he is with his 11.3 points per game average.
Larry Drew II, who transferred from North Carolina, has done a good job at point guard as he is averaging 8.8 assists a game, and another one of the Bruins’ super freshmen, Kyle Anderson, leads in rebounding with 8.8 per contest.
And speaking of rebounding, that is a concern for UCLA due to center Josh Smith, who along with guard Tyler Lamb saw the writing on the wall and decided to leave the program, not being around to provide the needed size and fellow big man/freshman Tony Parker not really fulfilling his potential as of yet as he is still playing sparingly. Parker recently tweeted that he perhaps made a mistake in coming to UCLA, but has said that he will not transfer this year.
If the Bruins are going to continue their pace, which projects to 24 wins, they need to improve on the boards as they have been out rebounded by their last two opponents, California as well as Stanford.
UCLA’s biggest moment of the season to date, besides the re-opening of a renovated Pauley Pavilion – which incidentally looks absolutely incredible – was their 97-94 overtime upset over 7th ranked Missouri on December 28, which undoubtedly got people noticing them again after they started the year ranked 11th in the nation and fell out of the top 25 with that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo loss. The Bruins haven’t been ranked since that disaster, but the Missouri triumph and the win streak has earned them some respect back.
Which they must work hard to keep and earn more of as while there are no clear-cut favorites in the Pac-12 this year save for undefeated and fourth-ranked Arizona, UCLA must, in the late coach Wooden’s words, “Be at their best when their best is needed”, starting this Thursday when they visit Salt Lake City to face Utah, followed by a trip to Boulder for a date with defending Pac-12 tournament champion Colorado – who is again no slouch as many believed that the Buffaloes were robbed of a win over Arizona in a recent game – on Saturday.
The Bruins’ first showdown with Arizona is on January 24, with the Wildcats coming to Pauley on March 2 in the home finale, and their two crosstown rivalry games with USC are on January 30 and February 24.
Combining that with their seasonal trips to the Washington, Oregon, and Bay Area schools, UCLA will have a tough go as they move forward in the conference.
As such, my predictions for this team that I made before the season hasn’t changed too much; I still feel that the Bruins will win between 20 and 25 games and return to the NCAA tournament, where they have a decent shot at making the Sweet 16 depending on their draw.
Whether or not I will be proved right in March is, to be honest, anyone’s guess.