Friday, November 9, 2012

UCLA Basketball 2012-13 Season Preview

Look at what has transpired in the program's recent history.  These are the facts and they are not in dispute.

- UCLA has missed the NCAA tournament twice in the last 3 years.  We have not been past the Round of 32 in last 4 years.

- UCLA has not finished atop the Pac 10 (or 12) since 2007-08 (4 years).  That's an entire graduating class having come and gone, never experiencing even a conference title.

- UCLA was picked to finish 1st in the Pac-12 last year, but finished a miserable 6th.

- Through 9 seasons, Ben Howland's winning percentage at UCLA is 68% (and that's including the three consecutive 30+ win seasons), which is much closer to Steve Lavin's 65% than Jim Harrick's 76%.

Since the departure of the last of our heroes of those glorious Final Four days, particularly Darren Collison, UCLA has experienced an extremely tumultuous road trying to live up to those high standards.  I looked at our history at that time, and I thought that we were at the beginning of another march toward greatness.

Howland's first season in Westwood, '03-'04, was sub .500 (11-17) but the future looked bright with Farmar and Afflalo.  Similarly, it seemed that the '09-'10 season (14-18) was again the new starting point, with new promising recruits.  In '04-'05, we finished a respectable 18-11 and made the NCAA tournament.  Similarly, in '10-'11, we improved to 23-11 and made it into the 2nd round.  This is where the paths diverge.  In '05-'06, we went 32-7 and made the NCAA championship game.  How about '11-'12?  The plan went off the rails.  This was the year where we were supposed to have earned our way back to the contenders picture.  We were supposed to win our own conference and ascend to the national spotlight.

Well, we made the national spotlight alright, but for all the wrong reasons.  First, our two best players, Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt, both declared early and left for the NBA even though neither was a surefire 1st round pick (neither was).  Then Reeves Nelson, the default best player left on the team and the one that SI put on its regional preseason cover, was dismissed early on for discipline problems.  Ironically, he was eventually destroyed by another national SI mag story after his dismissal, which also cast blame at Howland for losing control of his program.  Again, it is clear that this was mostly trojan propaganda written by a UCLA-hater.  However, it is still fact that we were an extreme and inexcusable disappointment last season - the inability to make the tournament was reason enough to have cost Howland his job.

But as I examined at the close of last season, the real reason for UCLA's 3 year funk is simple: the lack of true basketball talent.  Since Jrue Holiday and Collison left in 2009, UCLA has not had any players drafted in the 1st round.  That's 3 years.  Don't be fooled.  More than any other reason which includes Howland's team management, players' bad behavior, not playing at Pauley all last season, etc, we haven't been successful simply because we haven't had talent.

Howland went out this offseason and changed that.  He brought in 2 of the top 5 players in the country - some would argue top 2.  And though Shabazz Muhammad is not yet eligible, for the purposes of this preview, we will assume he is.

With the experienced big men and capable guards already on the roster, the addition of our four talented new freshmen plus a motivated senior PG should enable Bruin fans to expect a Pac-12 title and a deep tournament run.

Because Kentucky had been extremely successful with its one and done freshmen, some UCLA fans think a Final Four championship run is all but done.  In reality, I think a #10-#12 ranking to start off is about right and an Elite Eight showing makes sense.

Point Guard

Larry Drew II, 6-1, RS Senior
Again, Drew disgracefully and abruptly left UNC midseason 2 years ago for unknown reasons.  On the surface, it might have been because he, as a junior, lost his starting job to freshmen Kendall Marshall.  My objections to allowing his transfer must again be noted.  Its not the kind of player I want representing UCLA.  That said, this is his last chance to save his basketball career.  Hopefully he's grown up after what must have been a humbling year off.  On the court, Drew might be one of the fastest players we have.  In his last full year as a starter, he played 29 min a game, averaged 8.5 points on 41% shooting, and had 5.9 assists to 3.2 turnovers a game.  He's had a full season of nothing but practice under Howland's tutelage and we've had a good track record of this with the Wears.  Drew will probably start for us since he's now really the only traditional point guard on the roster (another reason why Howland went and got him 2 years ago).  Kyle Anderson was my original bet to play point, but Howland seems enamored with Drew.

Shooting Guard

Tyler Lamb, 6-4, Junior
Tyler's minutes will be most affected by the additions of Shabazz and Anderson.  He's the only returning perimeter starter but will probably play more SG than SF this season.  Its conceivable that Howland will eventually go with the new trio Drew-Shabazz-Anderson to start, but Tyler would still be a major contributor either way.  Hyped for his defensive skills before last season, I thought Lamb was a disappointment defensively while scoring about 9 points a game.  He did raise his 3 point % from 20% to 36% last season and we'll need his outside shooting to open up our inside game.

Norman Powell, 6-3, Sophomore
Along with Shabazz, Norman probably has the most raw athletic ability on our team.  As a freshmen, he attacked the rim with confidence and didn't shy away from an open 3 pointer.  His percentages and numbers weren't great but fundamentals have never been his strength.  I'm glad Howland played him significant time to prepare him for this year.  He'll come off the bench again and his energy and athleticism should be important for the 2nd team.  With 6 perimeter players now, it will be interesting to see how Howland juggles minutes between Powell and Adams.

Shooting Guard / Small Forward

Shabazz Muhammad, 6-5, Freshman
The best high school player in the country, averaging 25.1 ppg, 7.7 rebounds, is the key to our year.  Our deep tournament hopes lay squarely on his shoulders.  Shabazz surely would have gone straight to the NBA if he could.  Though this lefty doesn't possess the Kobe or Lebron level of athleticism, he has the perimeter scoring instincts, the basketball IQ, the fundamental skills and the work ethic to lift a team in the college ranks.  There's zero chance he stays at UCLA past this season.  Here's hoping the NCAA clears him soon.

Jordan Adams, 6-5, Freshman
This newcomer's greatest skill is his shooting ability from range.  Jordan's probably our best pure shooter right now.  Even though his physical athleticism is not outstanding, it is likely not particularly lacking either - certainly much better than Michael Roll's anyway.  And in college, all you need is that one exceptional skill.  Fortunately for us, it is also the most needed skill.

Point Forward

Kyle Anderson, 6-8, Freshman
Kyle is massively important to the next few years of our program.  Though 6-8, Kyle is a great ball-handler and distributor.  I had wanted to see him run our team from the point immediately, but it is yet to be seen  how he can guard the little quick pgs at the college level.  However, this is the kind of premier talent that we have been lacking for years now.  If Howland doesn't start him at PG, he needs to start at SF.

Power Forward

David Wear, 6-10, RS Junior
Well, at least he knows nobody is planning to use him at SF.  David averaged 10.2 points on 49% shooting and 6.8 rebounds in 28.4 minutes last season.  Though both brothers are extremely versatile and well-rounded, David is the better jump shooter.  Strangely, he also has slightly more rebounds.  He will start at PF for us. Neither Wear looks to be an impact player at the NBA level, but for us they will be the solid, reliable and sizable inside presence that every college program covets.

Power Forward / Center

Travis Wear, 6-10, RS Junior
Travis averaged 12.5 points, but just 5.9 boards in 26.2 minutes of play.  He does seem to be the more reliable inside scorer of the Wears, 53% shooting.  With Stover dismissed, he is also our best shot-blocker, which isn't saying much.  Unless Josh Smith surprises everyone and seriously reasserts himself, Travis will be our starting center and receive most of the minutes.  I love that we will have the Wears for another year after this.

Tony Parker, 6-9, Freshman
Tony averaged 16.6 points, 11 rebounds last year as a HS senior.  However, anyone expecting Tony to be a dominant force right away in college is misinformed.  He definitely has the physical body and strength to be useful inside.  However, his footwork needs work, his post skills seem raw, and his conditioning, though not on the Josh Smith level, seems to need improvement.  Hopefully he doesn't sulk with getting limited minutes this season.


Josh Smith, 6-9, Junior
After a promising freshmen year, Josh was supposed to take the leap to being one of the dominant big men in the country.  I was readying myself for his departure to the NBA.  Instead, Josh gained weight after a summer of home cooking in Wash and was never in good enough shape to contribute consistently.  His minutes, points and rebounds all decreased.  In short, it was a horrible sophomore year.  This past summer, he opted to stay in Westwood and recommit himself to conditioning.  Disappointingly, late in the summer, Howland indicated that he had improved, but still had a way to go.  If Josh doesn't show this season that he's realized that he has an enormous opportunity at a NBA career in front of him, then he never will.  There has never been any doubt about his physical basketball gifts.  But he needs to learn mental and physical discipline to be effective for us.

Probable Starters:
Larry Drew, Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, David Wear, Travis Wear

Tyler Lamb, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell, Joshua Smith, Tony Parker

While Shabazz is still out, Lamb will start at SG.  It's possible that Lamb could move over to SF and Kyle comes off the bench if and when Shabazz returns.

Ideally, I'd want Anderson at the PG, Tyler at the 2, Shabazz at the 3.

Arizona was picked to be the conference favorite, mostly because Shabazz still hasn't been cleared yet.  But forget that, we need to use pre-conference games to gel (and rack up easy wins) so that we can dominate the Pac.  Given the excitement of a new Pauley and our new recruits, I think a 25-7 kind of season is reasonable to expect.

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