Thursday, November 4, 2010

UCLA BBall Preview 2010-2011

I'm brimming with anticipation over the 2010-2011 UCLA Basketball season, which starts tonight with the team's first exhibition, so here's my quick preview.

Last season's 5th place finish in the Pac-10 (8-10), 14-18 overall was Ben Howland's 2nd worst season as the UCLA coach.  His worst was also his first season - 2003-04, when he finished 11-17.  It should be noted that following season, UCLA went 18-11 and made the NCAA tournament with 3 freshmen in the starting lineup - Jordan Farmar, Josh Shipp and Arron Afflalo.  They were Howland's first recruiting class.

In many ways, we may be living through that transition again.  This year, our team will be heavily reliant on newcomers to fill out the core rotation.  And just as the 2004 team experienced addition by subtraction (goodbye bad attitudes in TJ Cummings and Trevor Ariza), we are now finally rid of my least favorite player of any UCLA squad since I became a Bruin.  I hope to never mention his name ever again.  And no, its not Michael Roll, whom we will miss more than we know this year.  Read here for my 2009-10 season review if you're really stumped.

So before we go into this year's squad, here are those who have left us from the start of last year's squad:

Drew Gordon - Team cancer was kicked off team and transferred.
Bobo Morgan - Big plodding center was not conditioned and lacked defense.  Transferred.
Mike Moser - Still not exactly sure why he wasn't the right fit, but he transferred too.
James Keefe - Another injury marred, under-achieving season for the senior.
My least favorite ucla baller ever - This euro senior makes my blood boil.
Michael Roll - So of all the players who left our team last year, Roll is the only loss that hurts us.

Besides Roll and perhaps Moser (whom we didn't see enough to know much about and didn't impress the little time he was on the court), the rest are addition by subtraction, one way or another.

Another big difference between last season and this is a better balance of players at each position.  Again, because of Jrue Holiday's early defection, we were left shorthanded with only 3 players (Lee, Anderson, Roll) at the 2 guard spots last year.  This year, we have 4, maybe 5 who may be in our guard rotation.

Also we were bitten badly by the injury bug in the 2009 preseason.  This year, our team has been fairly healthy throughout the summer and preseason camp.  This has allowed our team to focus on conditioning, strength training and skill building, instead of wasted recovery time.  Thirdly, team spirit and team chemistry is far superior to last season by all accounts.  No one on the team is saying it, but its obvious that the absence of Drew Gordon and you-know-who this year has dramatically improved the environment in which Howland can prepare this team.

This year's major contributors:


Joshua Smith, Fr, 6-10 - Possibly the best HS center from the west, Joshua (he prefers Joshua to Josh) worked hard this summer to shed his baby fat - some have said he's lost 40-50 pounds.  Apparently Howland forbade him from touching a ball until September.  I bumped into Matt Carlino on campus in August and he seemed impressed with Joshua's conditioning.  Anyway, our new big man seems to have good hands and will be slotted in immediately as our starter.  With the Pac-10 down this year again, a big interior presence can make all the difference.  By the way, I don't think he's 6-10.  Maybe more like 6-8 1/2.  Maybe that will keep him in school more than a year or two.  Not that this worked for Kevin Love.

Anthony Stover, R Fr, 6-9 - This thin but long redshirt freshman should be Joshua's backup.  Though he is extremely raw offensively, I'm hoping he'll be a Lorenzo Mata type - block shots and rebound.


Reeves Nelson, So, 6-7 - He played as an undersized center last year after the forced departure of Gordon and he was instantly effective with his physical and workmanlike play.  I thought that he had even outplayed Kansas' Aldrich last December.  Reeves was definitely my favorite player to watch night in, night out.  Over the summer, he says he worked hard daily on his jump shot and seems to be eager to show that he's more than a brute in the paint.  That's sounds great but I hope his game doesn't change at the expense of his production inside.  The move over to PF should instantly provide us with a stronger frontline.  Be sure to check out his new tats.  Does anyone else think that he has a perpetual black eye?

Brendon Lane, So, 6-9 - Word is he put on 20 pounds this offseason.  He also seems to deal with injuries quite often so hopefully this helps.  As Nelson's backup, Lane will contribute with his jumpshot and work rate.  The jury is out on his effectiveness inside.


Tyler Honeycutt, So, 6-8 - The most gifted of all Bruins, Honeycutt may very well be the most important player to the success of our squad this year.  First of all, he's really the only player who can play SF.  When he's subbed out, we'll essentially be playing 3 guards.  But overall, he's the best passer on the team, has the best court vision, seems to have the best basketball IQ, and might be the most athletic.  If he can add a consistent jumper to his already versatile game, he'll be a star.  Honestly, I think this is his last season here and I hope he doesn't let it all go to his head.


Malcolm Lee, Jr , 6-4 - Malcolm will essentially be the veteran presence on this team this year.  With no seniors, he's the most accomplished junior we have (and the only member of the famed fab five that made an overall positive impact last year) and he will be relied upon to score a major bulk of our points.  Without having to play point (hopefully) this year, he can concentrate solely on playing off guard.  He may also slide over to SF at times (as will Lamb possibly).  We will see tonight if Malcolm has revamped the form of his jump shot but we will definitely see the same commitment to defense that he always plays with.

Tyler Lamb, Fr, 6-4 - Another impact freshman in Howland's newest class, he is slated to play significant minutes off the bench.  He seems to be in the same vein as Afflalo - hard-working kid, good attitude, loves defense.  I have high hopes for him.

Matt Carlino, Fr, 6-1 - This former Indiana commit is technically supposed to be in his senior year in HS (though I believe he's 18) but Howland brought him in early to see if he could fill the 3 pointer void that Michael Roll is leaving behind.  This looks to be our greatest need.  That said, he probably needs to get stronger and a little more seasoned before he plays major minutes for us.  Like I said, I got a chance to chat with him briefly this summer and he just seems to be a solid kid.  I'll be rooting for him.


Lazeric Jones, Jr, 6-0 - With the poor play of Jerime Anderson last season, Howland combed the ranks of junior college transfers and found a hard-nosed and tough PG to compete for the job.  We all know that PG is probably the most important position for a Howland team and it will be difficult for Lazeric to live up to those before him.  But any improvement from last year will be much needed.

Jerime Anderson, Jr, 6-2 - After such a disappointing season, we were not surprised to find out that he had not put in the work last summer.  This preseason, they say that he has re-dedicated himself.  However, I don't have high hopes for someone who doesn't seem to love the game and seems to lack the natural court instincts that good players possess.  His lapses of concentration on the court and even missed layups were just infuriating to see.  We shall see how the battle for the only available starting spot turns out.  It appears that already Laz is the early leader.

The above 10 players will make up the regular playing rotation and its very possible that Carlino won't get that much PT, bringing the rotation back to 9 strong.  Last year after defections and injuries, we were still only at 8, and I'm including Abdul-Hamid.

Should Joshua live up to his expectations, our frontline with Smith, Nelson and Honeycutt could be the best in the Pac-10.  While we weren't so sure who would emerge last year, this year's big men each have roles that are already clearly defined.

In the backcourt, Jones and Lamb (and maybe Carlino) will join an improved Lee and Anderson.  Again, with only one clear SF, Malcolm and Tyler Lamb may also log some minutes backing up Honeycutt there.

But ultimately, the core is Malcolm, Reeves and Honeycutt.  If they're better, we'll be better.

The starters appear to be what I predicted back in April:

Lazeric Jones, Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt, Nelson Reeves, Joshua Smith

Bench: Brendan Lane, Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb, Anthony Stover, Matt Carlino

Much has been made recently of a transition to a more uptempo game.  It appears that we'll be pushing the ball on offensive possessions even when there's a made basket.  This is extremely interesting to Bruin basketball fans.  The knock on Howland, if that's possible for a coach that's made 3 straight Final Fours in a 7 year stretch, is that he doesn't adapt very well to different styles of play.  If our teams are unable to impose our will defensively and keep the number of offensive possessions low, we struggle to win.  Also, at times, our offense seems to consist of our pg dribbling out the clock while looking for a play on his own.  It will be fascinating to see if we do adapt a different philosophy on offense based on our personnel.

After all of Howland's success, we should allow him that one rebuilding year.  This year, we must contend for the Pac-10.  As with last year, many experts predict that we finish 3rd in the conference, this time behind Washington (who only lost Pondexter) and Arizona.  With a healthier and more balanced squad, with an infusion of new talent a 2nd straight year, with the core of our team one year better, I think the conference can be won.  I think we can make a run in the tournament.  I hope.

By the way, Wooden's Den in the UCLA Athletic Center Hall of Fame is one of the coolest things I've ever seen.  For any Bruin fan, this is a must see.

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