To begin with, there is the big unknown concerning the eligibility of star freshman Shabazz Muhammad. Depending on how many games the NCAA decides to suspend him, UCLA's season record could vary a huge amount of games. We'll put it into numbers: If he misses, let's say, 10 games to start the season, that could mean possibly a few more non-conference losses, losses to such schools as, say, Georgetown or Indiana, or even San Diego State. That would almost certainly impact UCLA's RPI and their seeding for the NCAA Tournament, even though the NCAA Tournament Committee could very well consider that UCLA lost those games when Muhammad wasn't available.
But even beyond the availability of Muhammad affecting the season record, there are so many variables with this season's team that could send it in an array of different directions. We would not be surprised if UCLA won the Pac-12 and went to the Final Four, but then again we wouldn't be surprised if they came in fourth in the Pac-12 and lost in the second round of the Tournament.
Depth could be an issue. UCLA has only 10 scholarship players. It's not unusual for Howland to embark on a season with less than the limit of 13, but 10 is even thin for him. A few injuries and UCLA could be down to a very short rotation, which takes its wear and tear on players through the course of a potentially five-month season. So, injuries and health could play a key factor for 2012-2013.
Chemistry, too, is going to be tested. We're hearing that, as of right now, the chemistry is good amongst the players, but there are some factors that we could see potentially causing some tension down the road. First, and let's just say it: Howland is on the slightly warm seat. You could conceive of UCLA looking to make a change if the season goes awry. So, there is that tension, and regardless of what people say publicly, there is always an added degree of stress associated with a coach needing to have a good season to ensure that he retains his job.
On the team itself, it will be interesting to see how the chemistry maintains. There is always a bit of an issue when highly-hyped freshmen come in and essentially take playing time away from players who have been in the program awhile. Then, there could be potential issues with three McDonald's All-Americans not being used the way their people want them to be used, in terms of playing time, position and getting the ball in their hands. When you have players and their entourages that are contemplating going one-and-done they consider the freshman season a showcase for NBA scouts, and if those players aren't being showcased in a way that the entourage is happy it can make things chippy around a locker room, and in the coaches' offices. On the other hand, we have to atest to the quality of character of the kids on the roster for this season. If there were a collection of players that we could see navigating through all of these potential choppy waters it would be this team.
There is the issue of expectation, which is always the most important for every season. Getting the #2-ranked recruiting class in the nation raised expectations for the season considerably. And at this point, even if Muhammad, in the worst-case scenario, isn't eligible for a big portion of the season, most observers aren't going to use that as an excuse. At this stage of Howland's UCLA career, 10 seasons into his tenure, most pundits -- and those in the UCLA community -- will hold Howland ultimately responsible for Muhammad being eligible and whether it was wise to recruit him (after the NCAA actually warned programs in the spring), whether it's fair or not. Howland, in this situation, could probably get the double-whammy of expectation downside, having expectations raised for successfully recruited Muhammad and the rest of the freshman class, but being blamed for the team not living up to those expectations this season even if Muhammad isn't eligible. No matter how you look at it, expectations are high for this season, because of the recruiting class and with the UCLA community now having an overall loss of patience with the last four years, and being pretty adamant about the ship being righted.
It will be Howland's biggest challenge of his career, no question -- whether he can manage the personalities, the entourages, and the team chemistry and then, and probably most importantly, optimize the talent he has at his disposal and win. Because if he does the latter, the former probably takes care of itself.
GUARDS AND WINGS
The biggest unknown is the point guard position, even though if you listen to Howland and the p.r. coming out of the program, it's a known commodity. Larry Drew, the transfer from North Carolina, sat out a year and is now eligible for his senior season. The program has said he's "the most indispensible" player on the team, and we could see how that would be true of the concept of an effective point guard on this year's team. And we're not saying that Drew can't be or isn't, we're just completely unsure at this stage. We watched the exhibition games in China and Drew didn't do much. We watched him in his three years at North Carolina and thought he was a back-up level point guard on the elite high-major level. Perhaps he has improved. Perhaps he was just getting settled in China and was merely trying to be solid and not make mistakes. And actually, with the type of talent Drew has around him, for UCLA to be successful it might not demand much more of him. Get the scorers the ball, don't turn it over, and play good man defense. Perhaps that last part is the most important -- being able to be not just an adequate defender at the point guard position but a good one. It's been UCLA's bugaboo for the last four seasons, and it's such a bugaboo since it's so critical to Howland's man defense. It all starts with pressuring the ball, and taking the opposing point guard out of his rhythm. UCLA hasn't had anyone who could do it at a high level since Darren Collison and, thus, UCLA's mediocre stretch since Collison went to the NBA. With how this team isn't ideally or athletically suited to optimally play Howland's style of defense, it will be even more critical that he gets good defense out of the point guard position. Truly, whatever offense Drew can provide is gravy.
There is Muhammad. Since UCLA started recruiting him we at BRO have been writing about his impact on the program. Muhammad is a program difference-maker in terms of his approach to the game, competitiveness and warrior attitude. If and when he's eligible, and he gets comfortable on the team, there will be times this season when you marvel at his relentlessness. From a talent standpoint, he can be incredibly effective -- if used optimally. Muhammad is ridiculously strong for being about 6-5 and 220, probably stronger than most college fours. He has dominated his high school and AAU competition by out-muscling most of it. He is an excellent finisher, with that strength, explosive hops and long arms. So, UCLA's newfound bent to push the ball, if it can come to fruition, would be taking advantage of Muhammad's #1 strength -- getting out on the break. He has a decent outside shot, too, and will knock it down if left open. The limitations: He's not particularly overly quick, goes left almost exclusively, and isn't a great ball handler,. This means that, in the halfcourt offense, if an opposing coach scouts him well and has a fairly quick 6-5ish defender he could give Muhammad problems. Muhammad, with his strength, is very good at posting up, so it'd be very smart to have that in UCLA's arsenal if Muhammad is matched up against a quicker -- but weaker -- wing. Overall, we think that Muhammad, though, is a scorer and he's going to get his points. The question will be, like with Drew, on defense: Will he actually be able to guard quick, opposing two guards? As of right now, if UCLA put the line-up it says it wants on the court, Muhammad would be guarding the two. We think he's not suited for it, and will struggle, and is better suited to guard the three. But then again, don't ever count out Muhammad in terms of challenges. There is another factor, too, and that's Muhammad's strained shoulder. He was supposed to be out two to four weeks as of late October, but we've heard that, if he were eligible, he has recovered so quickly that he would possibly be playing in this Friday's season opener. So, whenever he's eligible we expect his shoulder not to limit him.
Powell is coming off a tentative freshman season, where he looked like he was merely trying not to make a mistake and over-thinking every last decision. We saw a bit of a different Powell in the China exhibitions, and we've heard that he's continued to progress since. Being the best athlete on the team, he's going to be critical to UCLA's defense, and being able to slow down the opposing team's best perimeter player. Offensively, Powell's outside shot has really improved, to the point that he'll be a threat opposing defenses have to honor this season. If that's the case, and defenders have to come out to the perimeter to pick up Powell, then he'll be able to exploit his explosiveness going to the basket. Powell, too, could get the assignment of guarding opposing point guards when Drew isn't in the game, which is a big challenge for a 6-3 guard if he, presumably, might have to match up against quick 5-10 points. All in all, it's clear that the program has high expectations for Powell this season, and they're putting quite a few eggs in his basket.
Adams is the freshman sharp shooter, who will easily be the team's best outside shooter from the first minute of the first game. He does have a very nice outside stroke that will be drastically needed on a team that projects to having questionable outside shooting. For this reason alone Adams is going to get some major minutes. He's also shown a penchant on offense for being more than just a spot-up shooter; realizing his athletic limitations, he's also a crafty scorer. The issue (and this seems to be the theme of this piece) with Adams will probably be on the defensive side. He's probably 6-5 now (I just saw him on campus yesterday and he looked that), and lacks general athleticism, so he ideally would match up better against opposing small forwards. It's the thing that could limit his playing time, with Howland having to find the right man-to-man match-ups for Adams with every specific team.
Tyler Lamb, the junior wing, underwent successful knee surgery to repair cartilage, and is expected back within a couple of weeks. We've heard his recovery has been very good, and could be slightly ahead of schedule. Lamb, when he does return, we feel, if Muhammad is eligible, could be the odd man out of the rotation. Howland has never been good at getting more than four perimeter players into the rotation, and we feel that Lamb might not be as favored as the other four we just mentioned. Lamb, in what we have seen of him in the games in China and in limited practice, has improved, with a better outside shot, and being in top physical condition. He always has had the potential to be a good, well-rounded player, but has gotten out of control at times and been turnover prone. It will be interesting to see if, in his third year, he has the turnovers under wraps and if he will get a good portion of time in the rotation. Of course, up until the time Muhammad is eligible, Howland will have to use Lamb.
You have to give the Wears a great amount of credit -- they work hard, and put in a great effort to keep improving and maximize their talent. We expect both of them to be better than they were last season, more experienced, and will probably benefit from being in even better shape (which they'll have to be if UCLA does indeed run). They'll start at the four and the five, and probably play 28 minutes per game, each.
Anderson is slotted to start at the three. The very talented offensive player will work as a point forward on the break, and then a playmaker and scorer in the halfcourt. Offensively, he's a tough match-up for anyone. In transition, being 6-8 he can see the court so well, he's just a few strides away from the frontcourt, and then is an excellent passer, easily the best on the team. In the halfcourt, he'll be a tough match-up for smaller threes and even bigger fours. Defensively, it's going to be a challenge for him to guard high-mjaor threes. We think this is similar to Howland going into the 2011-2012 season saying that David Wear was going to play some small forward and guard threes, which was scrapped pretty quickly. Anderson is probably a better perimeter defender than David Wear, but he's not particularly quick. He does try to make up for it with length and defensive savvy, but that can only get you so far when you're matched up against Arizona's Solomon Hill, an elite high major three that is big, strong and very quick, or even just smaller, quicker threes. Anderson, though, once he gets comfortable, should be so good offensively you might actually overlook the bit of liability he is in certain match-ups defensively.
Smith is, of course, an enigma. He might have the most NBA potential of anyone on the team, but he just hasn't put in the work to realize it. He's unique in all of college basketball for being a guy who will stay in college probably longer than he should merely because he's not motivated by millions of dollars or a pro career, but not in a good way. We'll be straight with you on his weight: He was probably 360 pounds at his peak at UCLA, was most of the time around 350, and is probably 345-ish now. If he ever got down to even 320 he'd be a force on the court. But he's shown he's just not motivated to do it, having more than an ample chance in the last two off-seasons to get in shape. At this point, our feeling is that UCLA has lost a bit of patience with him, and has moved on, in a way, from relying on him to be a critical force in the season. If he contributes, great; if not, well, that's what they expected. It's a shame, too, because he is potentially the biggest difference-maker in terms of his impact on the court. When Smith is focused and playing well, there is no one in college basketball who can match up with him. It will be interesting to see if UCLA's de-emphasizing him in their plans, scheme and playing time motivates him, or makes him curl up into a shell more. Given his history, we'd have to opt for the latter.
Freshman center Tony Parker, actually, has a chance to really step into a void this season. We've been told he's very raw and has a long ways to go, but he's already shown signs of being a worker. He has the basics of good footwork and touch around the baskeet. He's also gotten himself in very good shape compared to his high school days, and slimmed down he's probably 275, so he's a big, thick kid. He's getting better having to beat against Smith's 350-pounds in practice very day, so when he gets out on the court and faces even just a 250-pound center it's going to be a relief. With Smith potentially being de-emphasized, there's an opportunity for Parker. It will give him a chance to develop slowly, and perhaps by the end of the season he'll have come far enough to contribute consistently. The thing that will get him on the court: If he can defend the five spot and hedge screens well.
UCLA is simply going to try to out-score opponents this season. It's actually a sound philosophy, considering that the team's man defense isn't probably gong to be a great one. In trying to do so, Howland has been emphasizing that the 2012-2013 Bruins are going to run at every opportunity. It might actually be another sound decision, given Anderson's playmaking on the break and the finishing ability of Muhammad.
It will be interesting to see when, after, say, a few turnovers on the break, if Howland pulls in the reins or not. We tend to believe he'll grit his teeth and bear it, realizing it's critical to out-scoring opponents, and that he's been selling it on the recruiting trail and can't go back.
UCLA, too, will greatly utilize a secondary break, trying to get its shooters open looks as they trail, particularly Adams.
In the halfcourt, you can probably expect to see Howland's typical structured offense. It will, though probably be oriented differently than in the last couple of seasons. With Smith and Reeves Nelson, Howland had many sets that were designed to get his bigs the ball, but that will probably change for the most part. Of course, when Smith is in the game you'll see those sets, but more often, when he's not in the game, look for Howland to go back to what he loves -- sets that create space for shooters. Watch for the Wears to touch the ball quite a bit away from the basket, on mid-range jumpers, where they're better as opposed to finishing around the basket.
It would really be promising to see some players used in ways that optimize their offensive talents. As we said, posting up Muhammad would be a very effective way of taking advantage of his strength around the basket, especially over smaller opposing guards and wings. If Muhammad does, indeed, play the shooting guard spot and has an opposing two guarding him it would be remiss not to post him up. Trying to get Anderson either posted up against a smaller three, or matched up against a four would also be greatly beneficial. Drawing a four away from the basket would give Anderson an opportunity to take him off the dribble and either score or create for others.
We'll say it flat out: This team is a zone defensive team. Howland, as the universe knows, is adamantly against a zone, and has only gone to it very sparingly when he's been desperate or down personnel.
it's crazy, though, because Howland has recruited a zone defensive team. They are, for the most part, not greatly quick laterally, and not good man defenders, but are big, long and generally pretty smart. One of the cornerstones of Howland's man defense is for his center to hedge screens, and he doesn't have a center who does it well.
Imagine, say, a 1-2-2 zone with Anderson and his length on top of it, and then Muhammad and Powell trapping on the wing. If UCLA wants to run, this defense would probably create so many turnovers and kick-start UCLA's transition.
If UCLA decided to go to a zone this season, and had been working on it and perfecting it all summer during the pre-China workouts, we'd actually be predicting an Elite Eight run or better.
But UCLA will undoubtedly use its man defense, and that presents some problems. Above, in the description of just about each player, we broke down how most of them have limitations as man defenders. As we said, a big element in Howland's man defense is the point guard being able to put pressure on the ball, and we're doubtful that Drew will be able to do that successfully. Powell has the potential to be a good defender with his athleticism, but is still learning. Lamb is just a decent defender, Muhammad has his limitations, and moreso Adams.
In the frontcourt, we detailed Anderson's defensive limitations, but there are also the Wears, who will probably be improved defensively but still limited because of their athletic ceiling. Smith, well, we know his defensive limitations, and you'd have to expect that Parker will be a typical center in Howland's defense, pretty raw and clueless.
The one hope is that the team is actually improved in its team defense. Last season they did improve in this aspect as the season progressed, so perhaps there is some carry-over from that. The Wears are smart guys, so they are probably further along in their knowledge of what Howland wants of them in terms of doubles, rotations, etc., and hopefully just the twins being quicker in those elements make UCLA better at its team defense.
You'd have to say, though, that the season's theme is going to be UCLA trying to out-score its opponents. it will probably allow a good amount of points, but it has a chance to put big numbers on the scoreboard, too. We feel we can predict that UCLA's man defense will be average, and its halfcourt offense will probably be fairly effective, as its been over the last several years. These have been the characteristics of the last several seasons -- unsuccessful seasons. There are two different elements, however, this season: UCLA is more talented than it's been, and UCLA will try to run at every opportunity. If it can create more points on the break than it allows through turnovers that could be the edge that the Bruins need to make this a successful season.
And you probably can't under-estimate the difference of playing in a beautiful, elegant renovated Pauley Pavilion as opposed to the pit-hole that was a 1/3-full Sports Arena.
Coming Up: Part, 2, the 2012-2013 Season Prediction