Yes, once again, we attempt to do the near-impossible: In November, predict the results of UCLA’s basketball season that won’t end until March.
UCLA’s non-conference schedule will probably be the easiest it’s been in the last several years, and the Pac-12 won’t be nearly as deep as it was a year ago, when it got a record seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. Now, that might not translate well to UCLA’s strength of schedule, but it will to UCLA’s overall record.
UCLA will play the two other top teams in the conference – Oregon and Arizona – twice each, and go on the dreaded trip to the state of Washington and the always-challenging trip to the Mountain schools.
But all in all, it’s a pretty favorable schedule, and combine that with the 2016-2017 Bruins probably being one of the nation’s ten or so most-talented teams, it makes for what should be Steve Alford’s best season in Westwood.
Pacific – The Tigers should be in the bottom-half of the West Coast Conference and will still be trying to dig themselves out from last year’s academic scandal. A mid-season coaching change brought in Damon Stoudamire last year, and this year he’ll have an experienced team, but just not enough talent to challenge in the WCC. 1-0.
Cal State Northridge – CSUN had a pretty dismal season a year ago (10-20) but return a good nucleus and get some transfers eligible. They should be better than they were a year ago, but still shouldn’t be within 20 points of the Bruins. 2-0.
San Diego – When we said that Pacific should be in the bottom-half of the WCC, San Diego will be the bottom of the conference. They lost some of their best players from a team that finished last in the WCC. 3-0.
Long Beach State – If there’s a non-conference upset on UCLA’s schedule, the 49ers night be the best candidate. They had a good team last year when UCLA eked out a come-from-behind 7-point win, and LBSU should be improved from a year ago. Luckily the guy who lit up UCLA last year, shooting guard Nick Faust, graduated. 4-0.
Portland – In the first round of the Wooden Legacy, UCLA goes back to the bottom-half of the WCC again to play a Pilot team coming off a 12-win season. They have a new coach, former NBAer Terry Porter, and a couple of decent players, but UCLA should keep the streak of blowout wins against the WCC alive. 5-0.
Dayton or Nebraska – UCLA plays the winner of these two in the second round of the Wooden Legacy. We'll go with Dayton beating Nebraska, with Sean Miller’s little brother, Archie Miller, having built a great program with the Flyers, going to the NCAA tournament in his last three seasons. This will easily be UCLA’s biggest challenge up to this point, with Miller putting on the floor some veteran guys who have won 25 games in each of the last three seasons together. UCLA, still, is the more talented team and should prevail. 6-0.
Texas A&M/Cal State Northridge/New Mexico/Virginia Tech – The Aggies would be the favorite to emerge from these two preliminary games, projected as a Tournament team, at least. They’re coming off an SEC Championship and a Sweet 16 appearance, but they lose a good amount of guys and replace them with talented, but younger, ones. UCLA should still be the more talented team and is just playing up the freeway at the Honda Center. UCLA wins the Wooden Legacy Thanksgiving Weekend. 7-0.
UC Riverside – We could see the Bruins letting down after the emotional high of winning the Wooden Legacy, but not enough to lose to one of the worst teams in the Big West. 8-0.
@ Kentucky – The Wildcats are ranked #2 and #4 in the pre-season polls and, of course, they should be very good. They’re doing the typical Kentucky thing – losing a bunch of guys to the NBA and replacing them with future NBA freshmen. When UCLA faced then-#1-ranked Kentucky last year and beat them at Pauley, the Wildcats just didn’t look that good, and proved the rest of the season the #1-ranking was inflated. We think that will probably be the case again this year. Well, the inflated thing, that is. UCLA will be better than it was last year, too, but the difference is the game is in Lexington, and we just don’t think UCLA will have the composure to win at a place where visiting opponents seldom do (Kentucky has lost just once at home in the last two seasons). It should be a big, nationally-showcased game with possibly both teams in the top ten at the time they face off. 8-1.
Michigan – After building up the Michigan program through his first seven years, coach John Beilein looks like he might have plateaued a bit now, coming off two pretty dissatisfying seasons. The Wolverines will probably stay on that track this season – say a one-and-done type of year. They’ll be coming off a pretty tough game against Texas at home the week before and then have to fly across the country to L.A. 9-1.
UC Santa Barbara – If there’s a trap game in the schedule this is it. Coming off Kentucky and Michigan and then, after UCSB, the Bruins have to travel to Las Vegas to play Ohio State. The Gauchos, too, won’t be pushovers, and are always skilled and well-coached. But, unlike last year, we think this year’s UCLA team won’t be as susceptible to letdowns – or shouldn’t be. 10-1.
Ohio State – The Buckeyes are a curios program. Thad Matta took them to a Final Four in 2012, and they looked like an emerging power, but that just really hasn’t happened, last year not even making the NCAA Tournament (lost in the second round of the NIT) for the first time in eight years. It’s a program seemingly in trouble, with four players transferring out after last season. Of course, Buckeye nation and Matta are trying to be optimistic for the season, and they have some talent, but there just isn’t a good vibe to the Buckeyes after last season. 11-1.
Western Michigan – The last game before Christmas and the Pac-12 season starts, the Broncos should be a struggling team that will settle into the bottom half of the Mid-American Conference, and be an easy win for the Bruins. 12-1.
@ Oregon – The Ducks start the season ranked #5 nationally, but so much of that is based on the availability of one of the best players in the country, wing Dillon Brooks. He’s supposed to miss a big portion of the season with a fracture foot, but some reports have him back and 100% in time for Pac-12 play – just in time for when the Bruins travel to Eugene for their season opener. We’ll say Brooks returns in time for this. 12-2 (0-1).
@ Oregon State – A program like Oregon State can put together an NCAA-Tournament season every few years or so when it all coalesces with some degree of talent and experience. That was last season, when the Beavers had five seniors, including Gary Payton, and they made it to the NCAA first round. This year, OSU will go back to the other end of the cycle. Wayne Tinkle’s a good coach so he’ll get the most out of the talent he has, but OSU will be in the lower fourth of the Pac-12 final standings. 13-2 (1-1).
California – The Bears tied for third in the Pac-12 last year and were bumped in the first round of the Tournament. They’ve lost some pretty considerable firepower – Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jaylen Brown – who combined for 43.4 points per game. There are some predictions out there that have Cal returning to the Tournament, mostly based on the presence of Jabari Bird and Ivan Rabb, but we think they’re on the bubble of having enough talent to get back to the Dance. At home in Pauley, UCLA should win this. 14-2 (2-1).
Stanford – The Cardinal start the Jerod Haase era, and there just isn’t much on the roster to make it start off well. He inherits 10 of his top 11 players – but it was on a team that went 15-15 and helped get Johnny Dawkins fired. Stanford will be fighting with ASU and Washington State to stay out of the Pac-12 cellar in 2016-2017. 15-2 (3-1).
@ Colorado – After skipping the Mountain trip in the Pac-12 last season, UCLA gets it back on the schedule this year. We think the Buffaloes will end up in the middle of the Pac by the end of conference play, and while UCLA has generally played pretty well in Boulder, it still is a tough place to play. Hopefully Ike Anigbogu and Prince Ali are back at 100% by this time, and have gotten some playing time and some seasoning, because depth, especially frontcourt depth for UCLA, becomes a factor at this time of the year. 16-2 (4-1).
@ Utah. You probably won’t recognize the Utes when you see them since they lost two-thirds of their rotation from last season. It’s difficult to project how good they’ll be because they now have mostly a roster of guys we’ve never seen. Larry Krystkowiak is a great coach, however, perhaps the best in the conference, so he’ll have the Utes over-achieving. But UCLA just has far too much talent, and Utah would really be over-achieving if they beat the Bruins. 17-2 (5-1).
Arizona State – Bobby Hurley had to go with the players he inherited last season – and went 15-17 – but five of those guys are now gone and this season he’s brought in what Scout ranked the #23 recruiting class in the country. He’ll have only one senior on the team, too, so he’ll be going with a youth movement. It probably won’t come together in 2016-2017, but there’s a chance this season could be the basis for being very competitive in 2017-2018. By this time of the season, ASU could be developing into a decent team, but UCLA should be coming together as an elite national team. 18-2 (6-1).
Arizona – When we first started to consider this season preview, we might have picked Arizona to win this game at Pauley. But the last week has changed our perspective on the Wildcats. Their best player, wing Allonzo Trier, has sat out their exhibitions, and there are rumors that the reason might keep him out indefinitely. Ray Smith announced last week he has retired from basketball due to his injuries and center Chase Comanche is out for academic reasons. Arizona could withstand losing Smith, and Comanche for a good portion of the season (even though it would deplete their rotation severely), but if they lose Trier, Arizona probably drops out of the top quarter of the Pac. We probably would have said UCLA would split with Arizona even with Trier, so we’ll give this one a Bruin win. 19-2 (7-1).
@ USC. The Trojans lost some significant scoring with the departure of four key players from last season, but it still has a nice nucleus in Jordan McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright, Elijah Stewart and Chimezie Metu. It’s too bad for the Trojans that both Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic made bad decisions and decided to leave school early, with both going undrafted. If they had those guys returning, USC would probably been in the upper third of the conference. UCLA should win this game, and I think after last year’s demoralizing loss at the Galen Center, the Bruins should be motivated. 20-2 (8-1).
@ Washington State. We said Stanford would be possibly competing for the Pac-12 cellar, and its main competition will be WSU. Ernie Kent has lost seven players to transfer in two years, and the two remaining decent players, Ike Iroegbu and Josh Hawkinson, are seniors, so the clock is ticking for Kent. UCLA will be so much better than WSU that going to Pullman Feb. 1st won’t even be a factor. 21-2 (9-1).
@ Washington. Oh, no, it’s that horrible place called Seattle, where UCLA teams go to get upset. UCLA is 2-7 in its last nine games against the Huskies in Hec Edmundson. Last year the Bruins lost in overtime, and it kind of felt like it was the beginning of the end of the season (it was really getting swept in the state of Washington that did it). Lorenzo Romar got hit hard when his two best freshmen from last season, Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray, both opted for the NBA (drafted 8th and 29th, respectively). He also lost his top scorer from last year, Andrew Andrews. Romar did steal Scout's #3-ranked prospect in the national 2016 class, point guard Markelle Fultz out of Maryland, and he's probably good for his 18-win season again, and he’ll get his players up to play against the Bruins. So it should be close but the Huskies, pre-season, just don’t have obvious guys who will be stepping up enough to compete against the Bruins. After getting swept last year in Washington, UCLA brings its broom to the state this year. 22-2 (10-1).
Oregon. If Brooks is healthy and playing at 100%, the Ducks are a bad match-up for the Bruins. Brooks, for one, is a nightmare of a match-up, for anyone, but especially UCLA. Who on UCLA’s roster guards him? Then there’s the hyper-athletic post, Chris Boucher, who’s a weird combination of a great shot blocker and three-point shooter. He’ll be too quick for T.J. Leaf. Then there’s guard Tyler Dorsey and, again, who guards him? Aaron Holiday might have to play 35 minutes. Then, Villanova transfer point guard Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth year of eligibility, and he’s another tough match-up. If Holiday is on Dorsey, who gets Ennis? It should be an epic game in Pauley Feb. 9th. It will probably be two top 10 teams that are probably #1 and #2 in the Pac-12. With UCLA at 22-2, more fans will be coming to Pauley by this time, and it will be packed for this game. But Oregon, ultimately, wins the key personnel match-ups and takes a very close one. 22-3 (10-2).
Oregon State. Here’s the question: Coming off a big, hyped game like UCLA/Oregon, will UCLA respond by pounding on OSU? Even if UCLA beats Oregon, the emotional letdown to play OSU will be something to overcome. We’ll say UCLA squeaks by this emotional trap game. 23-3 (11-2).
USC. The Bruins, with their senior leadership, should be ready for this home stretch of the regular season, and there’s no better way to do it than to sweep your cross-town rivals. USC, though, will be a tough out, because they should be an NCAA bubble team at this point and playing for their post-season lives. 24-3 (12-2).
@ Arizona State. The young Sun Devil team should have a not-very-respectable record at this point, but are probably better than what it is, with their young players having grown up during the course of the season. It probably won’t be a blow-out. 25-3 (13-2).
@ Arizona. It’s tough to say what state the Wildcats will be in by late February. So much depends on Trier. We tend to believe that Trier will play this season. Arizona always seem to come out on the lucky side of situations like this. In fact, Arizona will probably be at full roster by this time and probably surging after a slow start to the season. McKale will be rocking, and the Wildcats will get their signature win of the season against top-ten UCLA. 25-4 (13-3).
Washington. You’d have to hope that UCLA comes off that Arizona loss pissed off, comes home to Pauley and stomps on Washington. 26-4 (14-3).
Washington State. The same. 27-4 (15-3).
UCLA ends the regular season probably ranked in the bottom-half of the top ten nationally. It finishes the Pac-12 second to the Ducks, but ahead of Arizona. UCLA faces the #7 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, which we’ll take a wild stab at and say is Utah. It then faces #3 seed Arizona, and wins the rubber game of the match and gets revenge for the loss in Tucson. It’s tough for any team to sweep a good team three times in a season, but again, UCLA just doesn’t match up well against Oregon in the final. Reminder: this entire scenario is based purely on Dillon Brooks being healthy. If Brooks isn’t healthy, we’ll say UCLA wins the Pac-12 Tournament.
The Bruins are then 29-5 on the season and draw a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which gives it a pretty easy path to the Sweet 16, through a #15 seed and #7 seed. We’ll say that the #3 seed has already been upset and UCLA draws an upstart #6 seed in the Sweet 16 that’s hot. Many pundits pick it as the Sweet 16 upset pick, but Lonzo Ball is playing like a one-and-done at this point and UCLA advances to the Elite Eight. It then faces an old nemesis, #1 seed Kansas, and its formidable backcourt. Bryce Alford and KU’s Devonte' Graham duel to take the last shot to win the game, and Graham makes it.
UCLA finishes 32-6, and Ball and Leaf declare for the NBA Draft.