Well, expectation and an anticipated level of acceptability, that is.
That's pretty much what the 2010-2011 season is going to be judged by – whether the team performs at an acceptable level given that it's coming off its second worse season in the program's last 63 years.
Expectations have been lowered because of last season. UCLA fans aren't expecting UCLA to make it to the Final Four, but they are expecting the team to be improved from last season and achieve a level of acceptability, and it probably isn't a very forgiving standard. In other words, the UCLA community, after the losing season in 2009-2010 and the blowout loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2008-2009, are pretty adamant in wanting to see that the program is again moving in the right direction.
It could be a very challenging proposition.
Last year we warned everyone in this annual preview that they shouldn't expect much from the 2009-2010 team and, regrettably, we were right.
Regrettably, again, we are going down that same relative route for the preview of this year's team.
Last year, the UCLA squad was very young. Among the 12 scholarship athletes, 10 of them were freshmen or sophomores. But that is practically a veteran, deep squad compared to this year's: UCLA doesn't have a senior on the roster, has only five players that have actually played D-1 college basketball, and three of them were freshmen last season. Among the 10 scholarship players, 8 of them either have one year of D-1 experience or none.
And did we mention there are only 10 scholarship players? Because its two transfers from North Carolina, David Wear and Travis Wear, have to sit out the season due to transfer rules, UCLA is close to being the thinnest it's ever been under Ben Howland.
There will definitely be some improved aspects of the team from last season – namely team chemistry, or should we say comraderie.
Last season, there were on-going issues with a few of the players that have since left the program. Most of the issues resulted from certain personalities on the team, and those have left with the departure of those players. But at least one lingering issue was the use of Nikola Dragovic. Howland doggedly stuck with Dragovic throughout the season, gambling that his outside shooting would come around and offset all of the other drawbacks of having him on the court. But alas, that never really came to fruition, and it created a little bit of negativity. With the added baggage of his off-court incidents, there were some rumblings in the program concerning the disproportionate minutes Dragovic received.
With Dragovic gone, much of that sentiment is gone, too. But while you can get rid of bad personalities, there is a residual question about Howland's determination of playing time.
With most of the guys on the team younger and being basically good citizens, there is an overall better comraderie to the team. The players mostly live on campus with each other, or near each other, as opposed to how usually veteran players have moved off campus and don't socialize that much with the team. Hey, it's probably the one advantage to having no veterans. Whether that improved comraderie actually translates into good chemistry on the court will remain to be seen. But it's a good sign and a good start that the players get along and have a team sense.
GUARDS AND WINGS
Malcolm Lee is a junior and it's now his time to shine. He is the only true returning starter in the backcourt and only one of two players who has even played D-1 college ball, so it's time for Lee to step up and be a leader. From reports that we've heard, he has, in fact, done that – mostly leading by example in his work ethic and commitment. Whether Lee has the type of personality to be a vocal and emotional leader is something to be determined.
Lee will undoubtedly be better this season. First, he's improved in a couple of different ways. He's physically bigger, having put on about 8 more pounds of muscle, which you can definitely see in his arms and shoulders. He's also put in a great deal of work to improve his jumpshot. He shot only 25% from three-point range last season, but it's not a stretch to expect that to improve, not only because of the work he put in but because of the situation he went through last season. Lee was moved to the point guard spot halfway through the season and his shooting and scoring drastically fell off. It was too much for him – and just about for any player – to be responsible for running the point when it's not your natural position and be the designated defensive stopper on the team. This season he should be quite a bit more comfortable back at the two spot, where he won't have to think too much and concentrate on scoring on the offensive side and again being that perimeter defensive stopper on the other side of the court. It's easy, then, to think the Lee we saw in the first half of last season when he averaged about 15 points per game (as opposed to 11 he averaged the rest of the season) is the one we'll see more of this season. It was really a shame, too, for Lee last season. He had really hit his stride when UCLA went to play Notre Dame in South Bend, scoring 29 points, hitting 4 of 6 three-points, and dishing out 4 assists against one turnover. But we never really saw that version of Lee again once he had to play point guard – the version UCLA fans hope to see more often in 2010-2011.
Who starts at the point guard spot is still truly undetermined. There has been a lot of talk that JC transfer Lazeric Jones is leading the competition over Jerime Anderson, but we've heard that it is still very much open. In fact, it could very well come down to how each of them play in the first few games of the season, and it could still be an on-going issue throughout the year. And that would be a good thing, since one of the reasons Anderson so badly under-performed last season was a sense of entitlement to the UCLA point guard position. After Darren Collison left, Anderson had the attitude that the spot would be handed to him and he had no one to compete with and push him. It led to a less-than-hard-working off-season in the summer of 2009, which led to Anderson playing mostly terrible last season.
But Anderson did put in the work in this off-season, and it clearly shows. He's in the best shape of his career, which shows in his improved ability as an on-ball defender, and he's improved his outside jumper. He is, though, we feel a bit in the doghouse with the UCLA coaching staff – and justifiably after last season. Because of that we feel that Jones has a bit of an edge so far in the point guard competition. So, he'll have to really prove he's clearly worthy of the starting point guard position.
It will be interesting to watch Jones' development this season. First, there is probably far too much expectation that has been put on his shoulders. After the bad situation at point guard last year, it seems Jones has been designated somewhat as the point guard savior, and that's not fair to him. At the very least, if Jones can push Anderson into being solid at the position he will have done his job. But that's the very least – and there are more, and realistic, expectations for him. He will almost certainly improve the on-ball defense that is so critical to get out of the point guard position in Howland's defense. Jones is pretty quick – not lightning fast but decently quick. He also looks to have the right mentality to play defense, actually liking it and realizing that it's his ticket to playing time. That's refreshing right there compared to many of last year's players (and those of other years). He still has a great deal to learn defensively, even just how to pressure the ball correctly, but he represents a good influx of defensive potential at the point guard spot. Physically he's built well, with good shoulders and strength, but he's only about 6-0, easily an inch and a half or more shorter than Anderson. Offensively he might be a little more challenged. He isn't a natural point guard, to begin with, so he's still trying to adopt the point guard approach and feel, which is something that is hard to learn (If it were easy, everyone would do it). Then, on top of that, he's getting slammed with learning Howland's offense, all the sets and plays. So, at least early on this season, you can expect Jones to probably be a bit hesitant offensively at times. His shot is decent-looking, but it would be too much to expect him to really be a threat as an outside shooter in his first season, with so much on his plate. Having more of a two-guard mentality (that he's trying to overcome) he sometimes looks far more comfortable penetrating and getting to the rack. He has decent handle, not great, but a pretty good first step, and then combines that with his strength to get into the lane. His decision-making is a work in progress and if the coaches can just get him to jump-stop most of the time on penetration that would be considered a big advancement. So, the Anderson/Jones competition for the point guard spot is another contributor to the overall drama of this season, at least the early season. But these first few games could not only go a long way to determining who gets the most minutes at point guard, but also how else both guards could be used. If, for instance, Anderson shows an improvement in defense he could sometimes slide over to guard the opposing shooting guard alongside Jones, which would enable Lee to move to the three at times, which could be important since small forward Tyler Honeycutt has no real, clear back-up at that position. If Jones and Anderson could be on the court together, it could give UCLA another option against smaller opposing backcourts. On offense, if Anderson ran the point, Jones could very well be a tough match-up for slower opposing two guards. And it would, hopefully, improve UCLA's play-making capability. Especially with Lee at the three – which would give you three point-guard-esque players on the court at the same time.
For Honeycutt, having an off-season where he actually could work on his game will benefit him immensely this season, as opposed to last off-season in which he sat out due to his injured back. He's gotten a bit stronger physically, even though he's still only about 190 pounds. He's also improved his jumpshot, with it noticeably looking smoother and more consistent. It will be interesting to see if his defense has improved, because it was a bit lacking last season, even his energy on the defensive end. Again, expectations are dangerous things, and for Honeycutt, the expectation is for him to be a polished, NBA-ready star this season, and that probably won't be the case. In fact, in our viewings of Honeycutt at practice we feel he hasn't developed as much in the off-season as we would have hoped, or anticipated. He's still very undisciplined and raw in his approach offensively, trying to sometimes make the too–flashy pass or forcing a play that isn't there. Again, it's unfair to expect too much of him, he is just going into his sophomore year, so we feel it's appropriate to temper expectations for Honeycutt this season. He's a good kid, but still fairly immature, and to have the responsibility of being the load-bearer for this team might be too much, too early for him.
As we said, the team isn't deep, and the backcourt reflects that. Beyond those four – Lee, Anderson, Jones and Honeycutt – there are only two other options, both being true freshmen. Tyler Lamb, the 6-4 wing out of Santa Ana Mater Dei, is getting good reviews out of practice, mostly because of his commitment and hard work, especially on the defensive end of the floor. He's improved his body since high school, being leaner, which has improved his mobility. That, and his mentality and approach, have made him a very pleasant surprise defensively so far in practice. Howland feels confident in playing Lamb because he feels he'll be able to hold up defensively most of the time as a true freshman. It also helps that Lamb came from such a well-coached high school program like Mater Dei. Lamb has come into the program so far advanced compared to other freshmen. That has also helped him on the offensive side, being so far more down the road fundamentally in being able to comprehend Howland's sets. Offensively, you can probably expect Lamb to try to merely be solid and not make too many mistakes, so there probably won't be many times you'll see him take defenders off the dribble, even though he's pretty capable of it, with decent quickness and a good first step. His outside shot is decent, with a bit of hitch in it, but it probably won't be one of the first options in Howland's offense. Lamb will be expected to provide 10-15 minutes to get the starters some rest, be solid defensively and not make mistakes offensively.
The other freshman is Matt Carlino, who will have an interesting time fitting into the rotation this season. Carlino, as Howland said, is exclusively a shooting guard, but at about 6-1 and without great quicks, there's a limit in how many situations he can be used. Being that size and not greatly quick truly limits the amount of opposing two guards you can defend. The lefty Carlino does have a nice outside stroke, one of the best on the team, if not the best, so that could get him on the court in certain situations, mostly against zones. And, at times, if UCLA goes up against opponents that don't necessarily have great athleticism in their backcourt – so that Carlino can better match up defensively – his outside shooting could be an asset offensively, especially on a team where outside shooting could be a weakness. We feel, though, that there will be a limited amount of situations where Howland feels comfortable using Carlino, mostly because of his defensive issues.
If Carlino doesn't prove he can contribute reliably to the rotation, the three positions – point guard, shooting guard and small forward – have just a five-player rotation for the season.
And that's not even considering potential injuries.
If it sounds like the backcourt is thin and inexperienced, the frontcourt is probably worse. UCLA has only four frontcourt players eligible for the season, and only one of them has played any kind of significant minutes of college basketball.
Let that sink in. That's pretty significant.
Even if you had experience among the four bigs, the lack of depth is almost certainly going to be an issue. If you get one player in foul trouble, and have to sit him, you then have the two players on the floor and only one available more on the bench. In other words, 1) guys are going to have to do everything they can to stay out of foul trouble, 2) they'll probably play with foul trouble and 3) there are times when fans are going to look out at the court and see only sophomore Brendan Lane and redshirt freshman Anthony Stover and wonder how this happened.
And that's, again, not even addressing the possibility of players missing any significant time due to injury.
A big part of the puzzle – literally – is freshman center Josh Smith. He's about 6-9.5 and in reality he's about 330 pounds, even though he's listed lighter. His actual weight isn't really the issue, since if Smith had 0% body fat he'd probably weigh about 285. He's just an immense kid, and he's done an amazing job losing about 50 pounds since he arrived at UCLA. While Smith has a long ways to go in many aspects of playing the post, he has some natural advantages that other players just don't have. For one, that size. In the post he looks like a massive, immoveable object, and there just aren't going to be many opposing centers who can physically match up with him. If you're 250 pounds, you still weigh 80 pounds lighter than Smith. For a guy that size, too, he has good skills. Not Kevin Love-esque skills, but among freshman posts he's on the far more skilled side. He has good feet in the post, and has a nice touch around the basket, and can hit a face-up jumper out to about 15 feet regularly. What's very impressive about him is his very sure hands and his composure; when he catches the ball in the post he doesn't panic, but uses good footwork to gain position. He's also a very good post passer. Of course, he'll be guarded by experienced college players who aren't just going to allow him to back his way in and lay in the ball. But even for the most experienced and strong college players, Smith will be a load to guard. Defensively is going to be a challenge for him. Before we saw him in practice we were anticipating he'd really struggle in the man defense, getting out on hedging and being able to stay on the back of quicker, smaller post players. But we came away guardedly impressed from practice, with Smith showing a better penchant for hedging, with quicker feet than we would have thought in this stage of his physical development, and a better natural instinct for post defense. He's also showing in practice that he's a good shot blocker. But even so, there is so much for him to learn about playing man defense in the style that Howland demands, so you can expect a big learning curve. Even Love, you might remember, struggled early on defensively. In high school and in AAU ball there were some issues about how hard Smith played, but the UCLA coaches have generally been very pleased with his effort in practice. Of course, the biggest issue, besides foul trouble, will be his stamina. Just how many minutes will he be able to play? And opposing teams are going to try to do everything they can to tire him out, even just getting their post player to sprint down the court for the sole sake of tiring out Smith. It will be interesting to see if he continues to lose weight, can get down to about 305 to 310 over the course of the season, and continue to improve his conditioning.
There is going to be an experiment in the UCLA frontcourt this season – that's Reeves Nelson playing power forward. If you go by how he looked last season playing center you'd say it would be very unlikely he could play power forward – or, more accurately, defend the power forward position. Today in college basketball most power forwards are 6-6 to 6-8 and weigh about 220 pounds, and move more like a small forward. The 2009-2010 version of Reeves Nelson could, in no way, stay with an average player of that size and average quickness. Heck, Nelson had a hard time staying with quicker post players when their back was to the basket. But Nelson noticeably has leaned down, losing the little amount of fat he had on his body and also trimming off some of his bulkiness. It has made him clearly quicker. Whether it's quick enough to stay with a good opposing four, or even an average four, remains to be seen. He'll have to step away from the basket and guard players that are facing the basket. If anything, it's going to demand a lot more energy and effort on defense than Nelson displayed a season ago. Offensively isn't really the issue, because Nelson, if used wisely, will be a match-up problem for opposing fours trying to guard him. So much has been made of Nelson having to develop an outside jumper if he wants to play the four, but that's truly down the priority list. If Nelson is guarded by a guy who is 6-6 and 220, the smart thing is to have Nelson post him up, much like he did effectively against bigger players a season ago. The fact that he has improved his outside jumper considerably gives him another weapon.
Probably the biggest question about Nelson is not if he can guard opposing fours, but what kind of attitude and focus he'll bring to the floor. Nelson has a bit of a punk side to him, as everyone knows, which can be very counterproductive to the objectives on the court. While he worked hard on the offensive side most of the time last season, as we said, he had some issues about effort on the defensive side.
It will also be interesting to see if Nelson is the guy Howland stays with doggedly this season. It seems Howland has had a guy just about every season – that no matter how he's doing on the court, Howland sticks with him. Howland wants Nelson to succeed at the four and, if he doesn't, it could be the same situation this year, just a different player. The issue would be moot if Nelson, really, plays tough defense and deserves his court time.
Brendan Lane is a bit of a wild card. He showed flashes last season, but mostly looked a bit like a deer-in-the-headlights freshman. He then had off-season surgery on his ankle, and while he's supposed to be 100% recovered, you'd have to assume the time off and recovery time cut into his development. To his credit, it's clear that he's put in some time in the weight room while he was recovering from the ankle surgery, since he's noticeably bigger in his upper body. He has received good reviews from practice, being able to use his additional strength to not get pushed around defensively as much as he was last season. He has a good shooting touch from the outside, but it doesn't look dramatically improved from a year ago. Whether Lane can earn more than just give-the-starter-a-blow minutes will be determined by his defense. Similar to Nelson, can he actually guard a good, athletic opposing four? Howland has indicated that Lane could, in fact, get some time at the five, too.
Anthony Stover, the 6-9.5 center, is coming off a developmental year and will be a redshirt freshman. He's gotten bigger physically, and his game has continued to improve. According to reports, he's looked decent defensively, having been in the program for a year he gets what Howland wants out of the five defensively. He's also a very good shot blocker, with his considerable reach. Offensively, while his skills have continued to improve, he's still very raw, without really much of reliable post game. If Stover, though, can provide 10-15 minutes of solid play defending the five it would be considered a big contribution.
So much has been made of Howland professing that he's going to run more this year. Howland has talked about it almost at every media opportunity. In the one practice open to the public, he worked on a secondary break, to try to squeeze out more scoring in transition – and to get it in the minds of the media that Howland intends to run more.
In reality, Howland has always intended to try to score points in transition. He might be focusing a bit more on it in practice, but it's not really a drastic departure from what he's done before. He might be talking about it more to try to dispel the misconception that his teams don't "run."
This team could very well be better suited to scoring in transition. With a guy like Malcolm Lee on the wing, being a pseudo-point guard himself, and Anderson, Jones, Honeycutt and Lamb, who's a very good transitional passer himself, UCLA looks a bit better equipped to get out in transition.
In the half-court offense, though, is where Howland has tended to slow down the pace, since he traditionally uses sets and designated plays on just about every trip down the court. He got away from it a little bit last season when he would infrequently use a motion offense. But with such little experience on this year's team, you can probably expect him have a firmer hand on the half-court offense this season.
UCLA should hopefully be spending a good amount of time practicing their zone offense, because you'd have to anticipate they're going to see a good amount of zones this season. The squad lost its best three-point shooter in Mike Roll, and the returning players collectively shot 28% from three last season.
In the zone or in Howland's set offense, you'd also hope to see Smith get a good amount of touches in the post. Even if he doesn't necessarily score, it's essential that the ball go down to him, so opposing defenses have to defend, and possibly even double, him, opening up other opportunities. As we said, Smith is a very good post passer. This aspect of the offense is going to greatly depend on how good UCLA can feed the post, which is a lost art in college basketball. Roll was excellent at it, Anderson is pretty good, but the rest of the team has to get adept at being able to get Smith the ball down low. It looks as though Howland is designing plays with the specific intent of getting Smith touches.
It appears that, with the bigger Nelson playing the four, UCLA will try to exploit the two bigs mostly with some high-low sets. If Nelson can carve out space, say, at the top of the key to catch the ball and turn and look down to the low post, and it essentially becomes a two-on-two game, UCLA will have an advantage with the size and strength of Smith and Nelson. There aren't too many two-man frontcourt combinations that have the combined weight of 565 pounds. It will be advantageous for Nelson (or Lane) to be able to hit that 15-foot jumper so he draws his defender, to keep that defender from cheating over to help on Smith. Regardless of how Howland plays the two bigs off each other, it would seem that UCLA's big strength offensively is going to be the inside advantage Smith and Nelson will probably have over most of their competition. Hopefully UCLA will be able to exploit the mismatches. Last season, opposing centers sometimes had problems defending Nelson, so it makes sense to really exploit the increased mismatch he'll create when he posts up opposing power forwards.
Getting the ball inside, and then looking for kick-outs to Lee and Honeycutt, for them to be able to shot or penetrate, should be the method UCLA attempts to score this season.
Hopefully Lee and Honeycutt, two guys who have NBA aspirations, don't dominate the ball and neglect the clear advantage UCLA has offensively of getting the ball inside to its bigs.
An interesting option, too, could be to play Honeycutt at the four on occasion. If Nelson or Lane can't stay with an opposing four, Honeycutt might be the solution defensively. Last season he tended to defend better when his man had his back to the basket rather than facing the basket on the perimeter. Then, on the offensive side, Honeycutt would be a really tough match-up for opposing fours, drawing them away from the basket because they'd have to honor his outside shot, being able to take them off the dribble and also opening up more space for the five. It would also possibly boost your perimeter on-ball defense by putting Lamb or Lee on the opposing small forward.
An aspect of the team we can clearly say will undoubtedly improve will be its rebounding. In just a straight-up trade, you're subbing Dragovic's anemic 4.4 rebounds per game for Smith's rebounding. Nelson and Honeycutt, two good rebounders, will undoubtedly improve upon their numbers from last season, and with Lee, who is a good rebounding wing, at the three, he's now closer to the basket and not having to rotate back on defense immediately when the opposing team puts up a shot.
Here's is the biggest statistic from last season: for the first time under Howland, UCLA was out-rebounded by its opponents. In fact, it was the first time UCLA was out-rebounded in a season since UCLA started keeping rebounding stats back in 1950.
If UCLA hopes to be successful this season, it will have to improve its rebounding. Everything is dependent on it. If it hopes to get more points in transition, it will have to rebound better. That will improve its shooting percentage and scoring. It will drastically improve its defense if it doesn't allow opposing teams multiple shots per offensive possession. It's the real key to look for early on: If UCLA is dominating the boards, it has a chance to be good this season. If not, we could be in for a bumpy road.
Like last season, defense is this season's big question mark. Honestly, even with the offensive question marks (like who is going to shoot the ball from the outside?), UCLA has some potential advantages offensively. But defense is still a mystery going into this season.
UCLA's man defense was so bad last season that Howland committed heresy and went to a zone, something that many long-time observers thought he'd never do. But it was necessary, since UCLA couldn't defend either on the perimeter or in the post. It's definitely a huge question again this season. Will UCLA be able to get its point guard to stay in front of the ball this season? It certainly didn't for most of last season. Then, its post defenders were lazy and undisciplined, and were generally horrible in help defense. So, that's a dangerous combination – when you have perimeter defenders who can't stay in front of the ball and then post defenders who are too lazy to slide over and cut off the lanes to the basket.
To be completely candid, we're skeptical much will change this season. Perhaps the perimeter on-ball defense will improve with the addition of Jones and the potentially improved defense of Anderson. But we still think Jones will have a bit of a ways to go, and Anderson, while he might be better, isn't going to be a shutdown defender. If they both are serviceable enough then UCLA's defensive worries are mostly solved.
And then there's the post defense. As we said, even Kevin Love struggled early to internalize how to play man post defense, and how to hedge properly, so we're skeptical that Smith will be prolific at it immediately. While Nelson might be better physically prepared to play defense this season, it'd be an unfounded leap to assume he'll be that much better defensively, especially defending a four.
In other words, we'd be surprised if UCLA doesn't have to resort to a zone during the season. If you take Howland at his word, it sounds like he'd be surprised if UCLA actually had to use a zone this season since he's not practicing it. He has said that, having played zone so much last season, it set back his players in their development as man defenders. Undoubtedly true. But, on the other hand, UCLA didn't break out the zone for a good portion of the early part of last season, and, without much practice at it, the zone, well, kind of sucked. If UCLA does have to resort to a zone again this season, having not practiced it much, we cringe to envision the same kind of defensive performances as we saw last season. If UCLA had been able to self-scout and realize going into last season it didn't have the personnel to play just man, and had practiced zone from the first practice, it'd be interesting to see how much better the zone would have been throughout the season, and now much better the team would have fared. We fear that the team could be headed down the same terrifying defensive path this season.
Of course, hopefully UCLA's man defense will be sufficiently effective early on this season and Howland will look like a very smart guy.
The reason we're a bit skeptical about the prospects of this year's team is that there are a number of factors that don't exactly instill confidence. Now, of course, there is a chance that UCLA can overcome many of these factors. A decent chance, in fact. But put them all together and they are a bit disconcerting.
Depth is a major concern. Even if UCLA had 10 experienced players, just having 10 is rolling the dice. There has never been a UCLA season in recent memory in which a player didn't miss significant time due to injury. UCLA is one significant injury away from the team being severely impacted. Two players out a significant amount of time due to injuries and we're bordering on catastrophe. You'd have to think it's a long shot that UCLA somehow gets through this season and avoids just an average amount of time lost due to injury, and for a team this thin and inexperienced that could be a considerable blow.
Inexperience is going to be a huge factor. Among UCLA's four post players, two have never played college basketball. Among six guards and wings, three have never played D-1 college basketball. In other words, UCLA is going to probably look pretty sloppy at times and make a considerable amount of mistakes. Fouls are the bane of inexperienced teams and it wouldn't be logical to assume UCLA isn't going to have foul issues this season, which will considerably exascerbate the team's lack of depth.
Leadership could be the biggest concern. Spending time around this team you get a sense that they're a bunch of nice kids – but they're kids. There's a pervasive sense of immaturity. They are green, and don't really have anyone who has been through the wars – and can lead the team through the wars. There is no Mike Roll, Alfred Aboya, Darren Collison, or Arron Afflalo. When things get tough, there's a question of whom on this team has the mental toughness to not only get himself through it, but drag the rest of the team through it, too. The personality of a team is usually defined by its leading players, and in this case it's Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson. Lee, as we said, has led by example, but we don't truly know if he has the type of personality to be a warrior-leader like Afflalo or Collison. Whether he's ready or not, Honeycutt is a designated leader, since he's the most talented guy on the roster and there aren't any senior veterans. The players have already and are going to continue to look to Honeycutt as a leader, since he's going to be the focal point of the offense on the court. It's truly uncertain if Honeycutt, at this stage in his maturity, has the mental toughness to lead a team through crunch time. He can be physically tough on the court, but when the game is on the line, will he have the mental toughness to get across the finish line and, again, lead the team across? Plus, with Lee and Honeycutt, the question has to be asked: Just how much will they be thinking about the NBA draft and looking a bit past their college experience this season? Even a guy like Collison, who was a warrior, got NBA-itis his senior year. We're skeptical, too, that Nelson has the type of leadership qualities necessary.
Now, like I said, these are all things that could be overcome. UCLA could avoid significant injury. It could avoid foul trouble. Players could step up unexpectedly – someone like Jones or even Smith – and take on a leadership role. These are the types of things that work out during a season, and sometimes unexpectedly develop.
But it's safe to say, a few things unexpectedly developing is going to be vital to this team's success this season.
Next Up: An analysis of UCLA's schedule and its opponents.