After a mediocre 2011-2012 campaign, the new season cannot come soon enough for Coach Ben Howland, his players or for Bruin fans. There has been much discussion on BRO and in college basketball circles about the impact of the new freshmen, (Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker, Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad, although the latter has yet to be made eligible by the NCAA), on the Bruin fortunes for the coming season, but there are some intangibles that will clearly work in the Bruins' favor in comparison to last season.
Through all the handwringing by Bruin fans over the course of the offseason because of Muhammad's eligibility issues, many have lost sight of two key changes as the Bruins enter the season, and both could have an enormous impact on how the year plays out. First, UCLA's faithful must remember that the Bruins played all of their 2011-2012 home games away from campus. Many home tilts were played in the atmosphere-less Los Angeles Sports Arena, with a few games contested at other relatively local venues. To think that didn't have an impact on the Bruins' ability to feed off the crowd (when there was a crowd) and have a sense of "home" would be naïve. Now UCLA has its home back, and it is much more than it was when the Bruins last played on Wooden Court. The Bruins not only have returned to their on-campus home, but it should be populated by a relatively ravenous fan base because of the re-opening of the fabled arena. Remember, Pauley Pavilion is arguably the most storied venue in college basketball (thanks to the people whose name is on the court) and there should be many Angelinos who will want to be a part of the "new" arena over the course of the season. This should give the Bruins an advantage they haven't had in quite a while when playing in Westwood.
The second change is the chemistry of the team entering the season. Last year Reeves Nelson was still on the squad and it took the team and Howland the better part of two months to coalesce around each other after Nelson was dismissed from the program. The chemistry issues that Nelson brought to the program were apparent for the entire college basketball world to see through last December. There have been few teams over the course of the last decade anywhere in the country that could have quickly recovered from such a polarizing personality as Nelson. Added to the chemistry problem was the negative Sports Illustrated article that appeared mid-season and truly put multiple chemistry issues in the spotlight. The Bruins enter this season without (or so it appears) any of the chemistry issues that plagued them last year. By all reports, these Bruins seem to enjoy each other and that can only bode well for how they handle adversity as the season progresses. While it is true that Muhammad's continued inability to play hangs over the team, it's very different from the self-imposed adversity the Bruins faced in the first two months of last season.
As a possible example of the positive impact of the two changes, witness the apparent victory the Bruins had against a pretty good UNLV squad in a closed scrimmage at Pauley. Some reports had the Bruins "winning" the scrimmage by a wide margin. If this was indeed the truth, the Bruins accomplished this without Muhammad and Tyler Lamb, who is out after minor knee surgery. On the other hand, beating UNLV soundly might not mean much since they only squeaked out a victory over D II Dixie State in overtime this week.
Barring Muhammad being cleared Friday afternoon by the NCAA, Howland has already revealed his starting lineup. Travis Wear will start in the post, David Wear at the ‘4', recently cleared freshman Kyle Anderson at the small forward spot and sophomore Norman Powell along with senior Larry Drew in the backcourt. With the Muhammad and Lamb sitting out, and only 10 scholarship players on the roster anyway, that leaves junior center Josh Smith and freshmen Tony Parker and Jordan Adams to come off the bench.
Because this will be the first time that the fans or the press will see the Bruins in action in a game setting, rather than analyzing Indiana State in depth, it is more appropriate to look at the questions facing the Bruins as the season begins and how Howland may plan to answer some clear questions.
The first question has to be about the pace of the offense. Howland has talked often in the offseason about how this squad will be more up-tempo than in the past. While there are many reasons why this is Howland's focus (think recruiting among others) this Bruin squad has real question marks as to whether or not this is the best tempo. Anderson's ability to see the floor and run on the break is an apparent strength, but UCLA isn't populated with great finishers on the break. And Smith, when he's in the game, isn't really built for an up-and-down game. Muhammad would go a long way to alleviating this concern; if he is cleared by the NCAA he becomes arguably one of the best finishers on the break in the country.
Another key issue will be UCLA's team defense. Howland clearly wants to play hard-nosed man defense but that hasn't served the Bruins well the past few seasons. They simply haven't had the athletes to play the kind of defense that Bruin fans were used to seeing during UCLA's three straight Final Four runs a few years ago. In many ways, this year appears to be no different. Outside of Powell (and that's probably only when he's guarding an opponent's shooting guard) the Bruins don't have anyone with the athleticism to be an elite defender. Will the strong work ethic and will of players like Muhammad and Anderson pervade the team so that the sum of the team defense is better than its parts? That is going to be a season-long question. Interestingly, at this week's press conference, Howland said his man defense this season would look like a zone, which we take to mean less ball pressure, more sagging, no hedging, etc. and will probably rely far more on team defense than in the past.
There are multiple personnel questions facing the Bruins as they enter the season, perhaps too many to get into in one game preview. Who will be the outside shooting threat for the team? Will Smith stay mentally engaged for the majority of the season? Can Drew, who has a reputation for being a bit selfish, successfully run the team and play adequate defense? Will Powell take a Westbrookian step forward in his development in this, his sophomore season? These are but some of the questions that face the players on the roster as they prepare for Friday's opener.
Indiana State was chosen as The Opening opponent for the season and for the "opening" of the "new" Pauley because of the connection the Sycamores have to John Wooden. It would seem to be a solid test for a young Bruin squad, with Coach Greg Lansing's Sycamores coming out of the Missouri Valley Conference, arguably the best mid-major conference in the country. However, a closer look at the Sycamores shows that the Indiana State may just be what the Bruins need to get the season off to a winning start.
The Sycamores finished last season at 17-15 overall but just 8-10 in the Valley. While that means they were competitive, the reality is that Indiana State accomplished that record with a senior-dominated roster. The only key returner is junior point guard Jake Odum (6'4" 170 lbs.). While a solid floor general, he isn't a scorer and isn't the kind of athletic, penetrating guard that has given the Bruins trouble in the past few seasons. That isn't to say that he won't hurt UCLA; he has a size advantage over both Drew and Powell, both of whom will probably share the responsibility of guarding Odum.
Based on how the Sycamores lined up in their preseason game against Division II Lewis University, junior guards Manny Arop (6'6" 215 lbs.) and Dawon Cummings (6'4" 175 lbs) will join Odum in the backcourt. Cummings, a junior college transfer, was brought in to provide scoring for a team that will struggle in that department from time to time. He's a solid athlete and shooter and Powell and Adams will have to pay close attention to him when the Sycamores on are offense. Arop is athletic but raw. While he is quicker than Anderson and Adams, both have faced superior defenders in their high school careers. If Lansing decides to play man defense, Arop will certainly have issues guarding Anderson.
The two post players will probably be sophomores Justin Gant (6'8" 210 lbs.) and Jake Kitchell (6'10" 240 lbs.) with junior R.J. Mahurin (6'9" 225 lbs.) providing depth. Gant and Kitchell are primarily back-to-the-basket players who should give the Bruin posts little trouble. Mahurin is an intriguing challenge for the Bruins. He is more of a shooter than banger and will draw his defender (probably one of the Wears or Anderson) away from the basket. Those types of players really bothered the Wears last season and exploited their collective lack of athleticism.
Freshmen Khristian Smith (6'6" 210 lbs.) and Davonte Brown (6'3" 185 lbs.) as well as junior Lucas Eitel (6'4" 190 lbs.) will provide perimeter depth, with Smith providing the possibility of scoring and Eitel being a poor man's version of Odum. By the way, the Sycamores are younger than the Bruins, having nary a senior on the roster.
Lansing likes to play a much slower pace than what UCLA appears to want to play. The Sycamores want to keep the score in the 60s, while UCLA will clearly want the score to be about 15-20 points higher. The motion offense that Indiana State runs is focused on getting open shots for their perimeter players, but this isn't a very good outside shooting club. Howland would usually want his defenders to chase the Sycamore shooters even though going under screens would probably be more effective.
Defensively, Indiana State is clearly at a disadvantage in the low post so expect a mix of man and zone defenses, with Lansing probably sticking to more zone, especially if the Bruins have trouble shooting from beyond the arc.
The key to the game's score will be rebounding. The expectation is that the Bruins should own the boards and that is paramount if the Bruins expect to mount any sort of fast-paced break. However, expect the Sycamores to drop four men off consistently in order to get back defensively and prevent the Bruins from dictating pace. It has always been easier to slow down a team than speed up one in college basketball, and this will probably be the case on Friday because many of the Bruins will be playing at a different pace than they are used to playing.
UCLA is going to try to out-score you this season, and reportedly scored 92 points against UNLV in the scrimmage, but Bruin fans may be in for a rude awakening on Friday. With the Sycamores slowing down things the Bruins will probably get frustrated at times. The Bruins should win, but it will be tough sledding for a while. UCLA has superior players at every position, but the Bruins are going to be a work in progress. The game, though, with the re-opening of a gleaming Pauley in front of a sold-out crowd, should have an electric atmosphere, and the young Bruins are going to be pumped up for it and feed off it.
Indiana State 58