In 2010-2011, the Pac-10 will be horrendous, once again. It might very well be worse than it was last season. The 2009-2010 season was the first since 1992-1993 for the Pac-10 to finish with only one team ranked in the national polls. In the first national polls for this season, the conference has only one team ranked in the top 25, Washington, which starts the season at 18th/17th. It's the first time that's happened since 1987. Even last year, the Pac-10 started the season with two teams --Washington and Cal – ranked in the top 25.
It's at least fortunate timing for UCLA, since, for a team that will have its issues, winning in this conference this year will be a whole lot easier than it's been at anytime in the last 22 years.
As we start off every one of these season predictions every year, we throw out the disclaimer that it's nearly impossible to predict a season's outcome. So, we do this for entertainment sake only and reserve the right to disclaim any of our assertions or predictions.
It used to be that, when we worked up this prediction during the mid-2000s, we'd put all of the non-conference games into a cupcake category and non-cupcake category. But the cupcake phenomenon could easily now include some Pac-10 teams. And for this year's UCLA team, as it was last year, really no team is a cupcake, especially those non-conference, semi-no-name programs that rose up and bit UCLA in the ass last season. You might have blocked it out of your memory, but UCLA did indeed lose to Cal State Fullerton, Portland and Long Beach State last season.
We've learned our lesson. Last year UCLA started the season 3-7, and we predicted a very optimistic 5-5.
This is brave of us, too, doing this even before UCLA's exhibition games. So we also reserve the right to completely alter this prediction after UCLA plays Westmont Thursday and Cal State Los Angeles next Tuesday.
But here it goes:
Even though UCLA lost its season opener to a Big West opponent last season, it looks to be a little safer when it opens the season against Cal State Northridge. The Matadors lose three starters from a team that went 11-21 last season. That might be a good thing, though. But we'll go with a season-opening win, 1-0.
In the first round of the Dicks Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off (nice, succinct title) UCLA, also luckily, faces a Pepperdine program that is definitely re-building. It posted a 7-24 record last season, but it does return everyone, so it should be a little better. That might not be a good thing, though. UCLA starts off 2-0.
In the second round of the NIT, UCLA will then face either Nevada or Pacific, both of which should be solid teams this year. Pacific will probably beat Nevada, and they'll probably give UCLA a good challenge, but we'll go with UCLA. 3-0.
It's then impossible to predict, really, whom UCLA will face in the rest of the NIT. But it's a pretty good bet that in the semi-final the Bruins will run into their their old friends, Villanova, who begin the season ranked #6 in the nation. 3-1.
If UCLA does get to the semi-final and loses, it could face anyone from among Tennessee, Wake Forest, VCU or Missouri State in the consolation game. So, this is complete folly to make this prediction –but that's never stopped us before. More than likely Tennessee beats Wake Forest in the semi-final so UCLA would face WF in the consolation. But it wouldn't at all be a surprise if VCU gets past Wake Forest and UCLA faces the Rams in the consolation. If it's Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons could be the worst team in the ACC this year – but the ACC's worst team could finish in the top third of the Pac-10. They do have some veterans, so we'd take the experienced ACC team against the young, inexperienced Pac-10 team early in the season. If it's VCU, they're a strong mid-major team with veterans that we think we'll slice up the young Bruins. 3-2.
At Kansas December 2nd. In a down year, Kansas starts the season ranked #7. On the road with this young team, UCLA fans are hoping it's not ugly. 3-3.
UCLA returns to the friendlier confines of Pauley Pavilion, and faces a Montana team that is by no means a cupcake. They made the NCAA tournament last year , and despite losing some starters from that team, have a very good big man. We'll say this is the big non-conference trip-up that UCLA is bound to have this season. 3-4.
Cal Poly and UC Davis should both be a little better Big West teams than Fullerton and not as good as Pacific, so it's two Bruin wins. 5-4.
Brigham Young snuck into the pre-season AP poll at #24, but they have questions in their frontcourt, and we'll predict UCLA's frontcourt will be getting in a groove by now. It's the Wooden Classic at the Honda Center, so close enough to feel like a home game. 6-4.
Montana State at Pauley shouldn't be tough. 7-4.
UC Irvine is rebuilding with a new coach. 8-4.
UCLA starts Pac-10 play at home against the Washington schools. UCLA needs to hold serve at home against teams in should beat, so it beats the Cougars but loses to Washington. 9-5.
Going on the road for 13 miles to USC will probably be tough. We think USC is going to be a pretty good team, with perhaps the best frontcourt in the league and one that physically can match up with UCLA's. 9-6.
At Oregon State and Oregon should be two wins, even though you can probably expect OSU to give UCLA a hard time. We wouldn't be surprised at all if UCLA lost to OSU on the road. The Ducks are down, and in extreme-rebuilding mode with new coach Dana Altman. 11-6.
Back home against Cal and Stanford. The Bears are in for a tough season, having lost all five starters from the Pac-10 championship team a year ago. Stanford will be improved from its losing season, but the Bruins should be able to dominate down low and win at home. 13-6.
(See, don't you love the Pac-10?)
UCLA splits with USC by beating them at Pauley. 15-7.
It then perhaps plays the biggest spotlighted game of the season, when Steve Lavin returns to Pauley with his St. John's team. It's kind of a video-game, fantasy-coaching match-up with Howland going against Lavin. Lavin inherits a team with veterans and returning starters, but there is no way we can predict Lavin beats UCLA at Pauley. 16-7.
At home against Oregon and Oregon State means two wins, 18-7.
(Again, don't you love the Pac-10?)
On the road in the Bay Area, with a team of UCLA's caliber, would in any other year mean probably getting swept. But we'll go with a split, with UCLA perhaps dropping the game at Maples. 19-8.
UCLA splits with the Arizonas in Pauley. 20-9.
UCLA playing at Washington is cursed (Sorry, Josh, no return-to-the-hometown win for you). And we'll even say that UCLA slips up in Pullman and gets swept this weekend. 20-11.
It's not a good way to finish the season, getting swept, but we were getting carried away there and had to temper everyone's optimism a bit.
So, that means 11-7 in the Pac-10, which probably means third place, behind Washington and Arizona. It then probably faces Arizona State or Washington State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament and wins, and goes against Arizona or Washington in the semi-final and loses.
Final season record: 21-12.
See, now even though the team isn't going to be great and it's going to have some considerable issues, it will get fat on the bad Pac-10.
The problem, though, is that UCLA's RPI will be really low because of how bad the conference is, and the only strong non-conference win on the resume being against BYU. UCLA will, quite clearly, not be nearly as good a team as its 21-12 record reflects. The NCAA Tournament committee would probably look down on any other Pac-10 team finishing third in the conference and not punch their ticket for the dance. But UCLA's big name will probably get it into the Tournament – where it will probably be a 7 or 8 seed, and face a very tough first-round match-up against what is usually an under-rated, mid-major 9 or 10 seed. UCLA will be the #1 upset special of the first round, if they're even the higher seed, and we'll say the season stops right here, with the Bruins, who fattened up on the Pac-10, getting beat by a one of those veteran-laden mid-majors, like, say VCU, or Cleveland State, when they get Josh Smith to commit four fouls in the first half and he has to sit the majority of the game.
So, the season will end with fans and observers up in arms over UCLA getting seemingly "upset" by a mid-major in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But the more knowledgeable of us will appreciate that this UCLA team was incredibly fortunate this season to even get that far, vastly benefitting from a bad Pac-10, which over-inflated UCLA's record and ability.
The team, though, will have vastly improved by the end of season. It will have gotten its defense situated, and the youngsters will have found their roles.
And since we're making predictions, we'll say that the NBA and the NBA Players Association won't reach an agreement before the NBA Draft next June and Honeycutt and Lee, who will have good – but not incredible – seasons, will opt to return for the 2011-2012 season. If so, UCLA will have the kind of loaded, experienced and talented roster it had during the Final Four years. You realize that, since so much of this prediction stuff is fantasy, we had to end it on a good Bruin fantasy, right?