LAST SEASON’S RECORD:
* 25-10, 13-5 in the Pacific-12 Conference (regular season champions)
* Pac-12 tournament finalists (lost to Oregon, 78-69)
* Second round in the NCAA Tournament (lost to Minnesota, 83-63)
The last time we took a look at this iconic, 11-time national champion program:
- They were getting smashed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota spanking them by 20 points.
- Their season had essentially ended the week before when Jordan Adams broke his foot in the waning seconds of their conference semi-final victory.
- Their hard-nosed and very unpopular coach, Ben Howland, was unceremoniously fired after ten years at the helm.
- Their all-universe recruit, Shabazz Muhammad, was found to be a year older than he was and – to no one’s surprise – bailed after one season as he is now a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and…
- Steve Alford, a successful coach at New Mexico who played for Bob Knight at Indiana, winning an NCAA title there in 1987, was hired to try and restore order and a sense of compassion and humanity that Howlamd seemed to lack.
That’s the situation that UCLA’s basketball team is in as they begin their 95th season in a flux of sorts, which is a bit unusual considering they did win the regular season Pac-12 Conference championship a year ago.
Publications like Athlon’s and the Sporting News pick the Bruins to finish either second or third behind Arizona – who UCLA beat three times last season – in the conference and reach either the second or third round of the NCAA Tourney.
The writers at the Pac-12’s annual media day have the Bruins finishing second.
It was crystal clear that it was time for a change in Westwood and the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion as coaches like Howland, who are yellers and very demanding in a not very nice way, tend to be successful for a little while.
Three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008 under Howland are proof of that.
However, people and particularly the players, sooner or later, grow sick and tired of the totalitarian culture, and the coach – Howland in this case – always pays for that with his job.
Besides, unlike every other school, UCLA only puts up national championship banners rather than Final Four banners, which was another factor in Howland’s demise.
It’s like that Goldilocks storyline of one porridge being too hot and another porridge being too cold; Steve Lavin, the Bruins’ previous coach, was too much of a lassiez-faire, buddy-buddy type, while Howland was too much of an evil drill sergeant.
It’s UCLA’s hope that Alford will be just right.
Tony Parker has already experienced the benefits of Alford’s much less hard-nosed style as the 6′ 9″ sophomore center, who languished on the bench under Howland and nearly transferred out of frustration, has been given every chance to play and has done well so far in the Bruins’ two exhibition games, scoring 25 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in one.
If UCLA is to improve on their rebounding, which was a big problem last season, Parker needs to emerge as a beast on the boards.
The same goes for the Wear twins, David and Travis (who will be out for a few weeks due to appendicitis), who both averaged five rebounds in 2012-13 but need to raise that average up a bit.
Being seniors, Alford will be counting on those Wears for leadership, but as it has been throughout their time as Bruins, if it comes to them being depended on to carry the team and win games, UCLA will be in trouble as the Wears are not built for that, never have been, and never will be.
Along with Adams, who is the returning scoring leader with his 15.3 points per game, Kyle Anderson will also be a go-to guy on Alford’s first Bruin team as at 8.6 boards per contest, the sophomore guard/forward is the retuning leader in rebounding.
Norman Powell will be counted on to provide quality minutes off the bench.
And as far as freshmen, Bryce Alford – yes, he’s the coach’s son – and Zach LaVine has seen the most time so far in the exhibitions.
Coach Alford has made some inroads in recruiting, signing five-star power forward Kevin Looney for next year, but fans need to give him time to see what kind of players he gets and whether or not he can fill the team’s needs.
As for the schedule, the only two noteworthy non-conference games on tap are Duke in New York City on December 19, and Alabama – which would be an epic classic if the sport was football – at Pauley Pavilion on December 28.
They open things up against one of the many teams that they should comfortably beat – Drexel – this Friday night in Pauley at 9:00 p.m.
As such, here’s my official prediction about these UCLA hoopsters:
Unless the team completely tanks and finishes in last place in the conference or something like that, Alford should be given a pass in his first season at head coach.
He needs to be given time to establish his philosophy and culture and hopefully, the Bruin faithful will give him that time rather than be harsh because he’s not as dominant as John Wooden was.
As was said, the prognosticators have the Bruins finishing second or third in the Pac-12 with an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and I’ll agree with that.
I think they’ll win between 20 and 22 games; if things go perfectly, MAYBE (and that’s a big maybe) they will reach the Sweet 16 of the Big Dance, though they could just as easily go one-and-done or even miss the tournament altogether.
The bottom line in all of this to me is, I’m honestly not 100% sure how this season will go.
I suppose I’ll find out starting this Friday night and for the next four months.