UCLA plays a pretty soft non-conference schedule. And it isn't just because UCLA has its usual course of cupcakes. Even the big-named opponents will probably be going through down and rebuilding years. As of right now, if it plays Kansas in the second round of the Maui Invitational and beats them, and then plays Duke in the final of the tournament, those two teams will be the only non-conference foes UCLA faces that are ranked. UCLA has a down Texas team and a down St. John's squad on the schedule. Last year, in a season that was one of its worst for RPI, UCLA played three non-conference ranked teams -- Villanova, Kansas and BYU.
And then, the Pac-12 schedule doesn't help too much with UCLA's potential RPI. Right now, Cal and Arizona are the only other two conference teams that are ranked. And just speculating, but those two aren't exactly powerhouses; they very well could be over-rated and it could prove out they don't deserve a ranking.
It then doesn't help that the two teams added to the conference -- Utah and Colorado -- are pretty bad. That's just two more conference games that don't help your RPI, or the strength of the conference schedule.
Then, most year's among the non-conference cupcakes there is one that isn't so fluffy, but actually turns out to be pretty good (Montana, anyone?). But it doesn't look to be the case this year.
So, UCLA's schedule might make its final record look a bit better than the team actually is. So, by the end of the season UCLA's record could be a bit fluffy itself and "overrated" could be heard to describe the Bruins.
Now, before we get into the predictions, we have to again throw out the disclaimer that this is really a fool's game -- trying to predict in November how a game will play out in February. And last season, going 27-0 in our predictions has definitely raised expectations for our predictions and turned up the pressure. So, unless we go 27-0 again, or better, please forget these predictions completely by the end of the season.
Here we go...
UCLA starts the season this Friday against Loyola Marymount. The Lions are generally picked to finish in the bottom half of the West Coast Conference, are coming off a devastating year, and don't have the bodies to stay with the Bruins. 1-0.
The best thing about UCLA playing Middle Tennessee State is that, when the UCLA players are interviewed and asked if they know where Middle Tennessee State is, they won't be able to say they don't know. The Blue Raiders aren't slouches, with some BCS conference transfers, but they'll be playing their second game of their L.A. road trip (they play LMU two days before) and will be fatigued. And again, they won't have the manpower inside. 2-0.
The Bruins then take off for Hawaii and the Maui Invitational for Thanksgiving week and face Chaminade in the opening round. The D-2 Silverswords have been responsible for some of the biggest upsets in college basketball history, and they still pull out one on occasion, beating Oklahoma in the Maui Classic last year. We can't see it happening here. 3-0.
In the second round, UCLA will play either Kansas or Georgetown. While UCLA is young, Kansas is younger, and they'll have a huge hole to fill in the frontcourt with the early departure of the Morris twins. In a season of over-rated teams, they could be one of the most over-rated at this point. Georgetown looks to be just as inexperienced and will be going through a re-building year. Even though Kansas is ranked higher in pre-season polls, UCLA should beat either one. 4-0.
In the Maui final, UCLA could face one of Duke/Tennessee/Michigan/Memphis. More than likely it will be Duke or Michigan, both of whom are top 20 pre-season teams. This is the best Michigan team in many years, losing just one player from a 21-win squad last year. Duke is very young, too, while talented -- but very beatable. They aren't nearly as talented as a typical Duke team. UCLA, really, should beat either one. That should be the expectation, but we just can't come to believe that the Bruins will play up to expectation completely in this tourney and think they'll drop the final against the more-ready-for-prime-time Dookies. 4-1.
UCLA now heads into its cupcake schedule, and it's just a matter of not allowing a letdown. Talking about re-building, Pepperdine is still doing it. This would be a typical letdown game for UCLA, coming off the Maui tournament, and if this were Montana from last year we'd be calling an upset. But Pepperdine just isn't good enough. 5-1.
In any other year, the Texas game would be one we could see UCLA dropping. But the way luck would have it, Texas is probably the youngest among all of the youthful teams we've discussed here. They lost all five starters from last season, but have a very good recruiting class that will try to fill in the blanks. If this were on the road, we might give the nod to Texas, but the young Longhorn team having to travel to L.A. gives the Bruins an advantage. 6-1.
Penn has suffered through four losing seasons, but has probably the Ivy League's best player in point guard Zack Rosen. The team doesn't have anyone who weighs more than 220 pounds. Who's going to guard Josh Smith? 7-1.
Eastern Washington should be about on the same level as its Big Sky counterpart Montana State was last season. 8-1.
Again, UC Davis doesn't have anyone who weighs more than 220 pounds. There's the Josh Smith factor. 9-1.
UC Irvine will be down again and be among the cellar dwellers of the Big West. 10-1.
Richmond is coming off perhaps the best season in its history, winning 29 games and going to the Sweet 16, but this season they'll come crashing back to Earth, as they loses four starters. 11-1.
Wow, without paying much attention, we just realized we predicted UCLA should go through its pre-conference 11-1? That can't be right, can it? Realistically, looking at the schedule and the way UCLA matches up against its opponents, even Duke, expectations should be very high. It's difficult, though, for us to believe the team won't trip up somewhere else along the way, so we're retaining the option of claiming we were right if the team goes 10-2.
UCLA starts Pac-12 play with easily its most difficult weekend, on the road in the Bay Area. First to Palo Alto, which should be a tough game for the Bruins, facing a Stanford team that will almost certainly post its first winning season under coach Johnny Dawkins. Stanford has a bit of size and a potentially promising backcourt. But we'll stick with the no-answer-for-Josh-Smith explanation. 12-1.
At Cal, though, will probably be a different story. I can still see images of Jorge Gutierrez from last season slicing up the Bruins for 34 points, and now the Bruins don't have that lock-down defender. 12-2.
The Bruins return home to face Arizona on a Thursday. The Wildcat team I've seen so far this season has a lot of questions, but I would guess they could have most of those answered by January 5th. Even so, there's Josh Smith. 13-2.
Arizona State's frontcourt might be a bit better than last season, when it was pretty bad. But, see, UCLA's frontcourt is better, too. 14-2.
We traditionally pick UCLA to lose at USC just about every year. They seem to really struggle when traveling to USC's campus, but we think this season the Bruins will have that experience down pat, as should UCLA fans. If there's a team in the Pac-12 that's on the brink of a meltdown season, it's the Trojans. 15-2.
Going to Corvallis hasn't always been a great experience for UCLA either. And Oregon State might have one of the few guys who can physically match up with UCLA's fronline in Joe Burton. UCLA is poised for a letdown at about this time, but we'll say they sneak by in this game. 16-2.
Actually, we'll say the letdown comes just two days later. UCLA gets disoriented playing on Oregon's court, while the Ducks actually throw some beefy bodies at the Bruins. 16-3.
At home against Utah, for the first time this season, UCLA will face an opponent with a frontline at least as big as theirs. But not nearly as talented. Utah will probably be the worst team in the Pac-12. 17-3.
Colorado will probably be the second-worst team in the Pac-12. Welcome to the conference. 18-3.
When's the last time UCLA won in Seattle? It was 2003, in Howland's first season, amazingly. And it took overtime. So, it's been 7 years in a row. We can't buck tradition. 18-4.
UCLA has generally played well in Pullman, and Washington State lost some talent. 19-4.
At home against the Bay Area schools, we'll project that the Bruins, by early February, are showing maturity and have a good weekend, bouncing back from the Washington loss and revenging the one earlier against Cal in Berkeley. Sweep. 21-4.
At home against USC isn't really. It will probably be pretty much like another game at USC, but the Trojans should be down to about 6 scholarship players by then. 22-4.
The way it appears, St. John's has only 8 scholarship players and just one player back from last year's squad, and five of those 8 are freshmen. If UCLA loses to St. John's it would be the biggest blow to a team that is, at this time of the season, gearing up for the home stretch and NCAA run. 23-4.
The Sun Devils haven't gotten much better in a month and a half. 24-4.
But Arizona's young talent has. We'll say this is a loss on the road. 24-5.
The Washington schools come to L.A., and we'll say neither game will be any easy one. But this is a year when UCLA actually beats the Huskies at home, even though it really isn't home. 26-5.
It's tough to figure what a 14-4 record will get you in terms of a finish in the new Pac-12. it's at least third place, so that allows UCLA to go to the second day of the Pac-12 tournament and at the worst face a #7 seed in the quarterfinal, which we'll say UCLA beats. 27-5.
We'll then go out on a limb and say the team will have come together and meshed by this time of the season. Its backcourt should be solid and have an established rotation, and the Bruins' defense will be on the upward curve. So, regardless of where UCLA finishes in the Pac-12 regular season, we'll say it wins the Pac-12 tournament. 29-5.
In regard to the NCAA Tournament, UCLA's profile should be okay, but not overwhelming. It will be ranked probably anywhere from 12th to 17th to finish the season. Now, you might think a team that is 28-5 would be ranked higher but UCLA won't get much love due to its schedule. Its RPI shouldn't be that strong given the weak Pac-12 competition and UCLA's weak out-of-conference schedule. That will probably get UCLA a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. It will then face a 13th or 14th seed in the first round, which is a smaller conference team, and it will beat them pretty solidly. But then, in the second round, it will face a tough 5- or 6-seed, a team from a good conference that was toughened up by its conference schedule. We'll say this is where the road ends, with UCLA getting upset in the second round, with the Bruins unable to match up against a team with a good, athletic, experienced backcourt. It's not unimaginable that UCLA gets past the second round and makes it to the Sweet 16, but we think ultimately its fairly weak schedule will come back to haunt it, as well as the Ghost of Malcolm Lee.