Exhibition Preview: Westmont

UCLA begins its season with its first exhibition game Thursday and, after last season and the Concordia game, the Bruins can't take even an exhibition lightly. The game will almost certainly see some experimentation from Ben Howland...

It is good to know that the UCLA men's basketball season opens relatively soon. Many Bruin fans have been counting the days to (hopefully) wash the taste of last season's fiasco out of their proverbial mouths. I have to admit that I am as guilty of this as is anyone. Remember it was me that made the game-to-game predictions of the Bruins last year and found myself being lambasted, and rightfully so. I pride myself in being able to objectively predict the general outcomes of Bruin games as I attempt to break them down. Last season I put too much blind faith in Coach Ben Howland's coaching ability, (which is quite good), and too much blind faith in the four letters across the front of the jersey. I honestly believed that the disaster that was last year's team and season simply couldn't happen because the team and program were UCLA, as if that were enough to ward off the inevitable troubles that Tracy Pierson told Bruin fans to prepare themselves for from day one of last season.

The mistake will not happen again. Knowing I made what little name I have for myself on the accuracy of my preview breakdowns and predictions, I vow that I will not allow myself to be blinded again. That starts with this preview.

The UCLA Bruins open their 2010-2011 season at home against NAIA Westmont College on Thursday night. The Warriors are members of the Golden State Athletic Conference, which includes some of UCLA's past exhibition opponents, namely Concordia and Biola. Because it's an exhibition game the prediction part of the preview really is unimportant, although if the Bruins were to lose one could imagine the meltdown that would take place among the Bruin faithful. However, keep in mind that while UCLA beat Concordia in last season's exhibition opener because of a last-second three-pointer by Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, Westmont lost twice to Concordia, but only by a total of 16 points. Like Concordia, though, Westmont had a veteran team that actually disappointed in terms of preseason goals and many of the key players for the Warriors have graduated.

The key for Howland and the Bruins will be two-fold; first Howland will want to mix and match his lineup in order to see what is and isn't effective on the floor, or at least which lineups hold potential. Second, Howland will want to see the growth (or lack thereof), in certain players since last season, especially on the defensive end.

Most fans are going to first look at who is running the point for the Bruins, Jerime Anderson or Lazeric Jones. If Jones is playing point guard then watching how he plays on the offensive end will be key. Tracy Pierson has written that Jones plays defense with passion and desire and only needs seasoning to make his one-on-one defense pretty good. Offensively, though, Jones is raw when it comes to reading the game. He is more in the mental mold of a guard off the Washington Husky roster than a true ‘1' in that he wants to get to the basket off the dribble instead of run his team through its offense.

Anderson, quite frankly, had a disastrous season in 2009-2010, and that had about as much to do with the Bruins imploding as anything. According to sources, Anderson showed more commitment in the offseason to improving himself. However, most fans want to see it before they believe it. Anderson had a particularly poor year on the defensive end in that he couldn't consistently keep his opposing man in front of him. Seeing if Anderson can indeed force his man to move laterally will perhaps be the most interesting thing to watch for in Thursday's contest. He'll have to do it against a point guard in sophomore Marlow Brooks who represents the kind of small, quick guard that gave the Bruins, and in particular Anderson, real trouble last season.

Something else about Anderson that is certainly only opinion. Tracy did say in his team preview that this team lacks a vocal leader. I can see Anderson taking on that role. It's clear that his negative play and body language last season had an impact on his teammates. Perhaps the reverse will also be true. I, for one, would like to see how Anderson reacts when things don't go well for him. Might as well find out earlier rather than later.

Of course the big thing to watch for on offense (pun intended) is what kind of an impact freshman Josh Smith will have on the Bruins. Another point of interest will be whether or not the Bruins have a true "go-to" guy on the roster. The obvious choices are Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt, but, again, until he sees it Howland simply won't know. Westmont will present the Bruins with at least a bit of a challenge and one that will be more difficult than some may believe. In senior forward Dan Rasp they have a seasoned scorer and one who is athletic enough to cause both Brendan Lane and Reeves Nelson problems. Rasp, however, isn't a strong rebounder. Senior wing Blake Bender is quick enough to get to the rim and rebounds better than his 6'7", 204-pound size. He will be about 10 pounds heavier than Honeycutt. The aforementioned Brooks is quick and did start his career at UC Riverside, so he has D-1 experience. Brooks' backcourt mate is sophomore Preston Branson, who Lee should be able to dominate for the Bruins. Finally the Warriors will start Evan Haines at center. He is a very large post at 6'9" and 250 pound, but UCLA's Smith is quicker and outweighs Haines by 80 pounds.

Assuming that UCLA will win, the question or questions that remain are how Howland will utilize certain players this season and what sort of player combinations will work for the Bruins. We fans will begin to find out Thursday night.

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