It's the first year of new Head Coach Ben Howland, a native Southern Californian who returns from turning around both the Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh programs and winning national coach of the year At Pittsburgh in 2002.
For hungry and desperate UCLA sports fans, the chance to see a UCLA team that is well-coached, disciplined and plays hard will be enough to generate a great deal of interest in this team and season.
And if that what your expectations are for the season – to see a team that is well-coached, disciplined and plays hard – then you're in for a satisfying season.
If you're going to get greed and expect 20+ wins, do so at your own risk.
This can only be considered a transition and re-building year for UCLA basketball. The talent and experience level on the roster is probably the lowest it's been in the last 15 years.
But Howland and his coaching staff – assistants Donny Daniels, Kerry Keating, and Ernie Zeigler – will have an immediate impact on the program this season, establishing Howland's systems and emphasis on defense and toughness. After watching them in just two exhibition games, the impact is obvious. They actually run an offense (motion, actually), with an array of set plays and a steady wave of screens being set all over the court (which many UCLA basketball fans will have a hard time recognizing), while also playing stronger man-to-man and team defense.
So, yes, there will be an immediate, marked impact on the program and the team this season. But the talent is down, and there is sure to be some lapses in the learning curve as the players go from the undisciplined and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants coaching approach of recent years to Howland's strict, detailed-oriented no-nonsense approach. It's probably pretty easy to predict that this team will be quite a bit better by the end of the year than it is in the beginning, as it gets more comfortable in Howland's systems and with him personally.
The starting lineup to begin the season:
There is some talent in this lineup, and a great deal of unrealized potential to date.
Cedric Bozeman: Many believe the season could very well hinge on the production and effectiveness of Cedric Bozeman, who was much heralded out of high school and hadn't as of yet recognized that potential, mostly due to poor coaching and injuries. Bozeman recovered from shoulder surgery last spring and was cleared for contact this summer, but will still be somewhat in recover-mode from his injury. Bozeman, as a point guard, has some drawbacks. He's not overly quick and is just an okay ball handler. It could present problems when the Bruins face teams that will put a lot of backcourt pressure on the ball. His outside shot, too, is still developing, even though it's improved over last season. Bozeman, though, presents some great advantages at the point guard position. Physically bigger than most of the players that will be assigned to guard him, Bozeman can overpower them. Watch for him to post up smaller guards throughout the season. Also, because of his height, he has very good vision of the floor, especially in the half court offense, which enables him to see passes smaller point guards can't. Also, driving to the basket, with his size and strength, will be another advantage. With Howland's coaching and guidance, it's expected that Bozeman will look more like the player many projected him to be out of high school.
Brian Morrison: Always a very springy athlete with a decent outside shot, the transfer from North Carolina has always had some problems with every aspect of the game between shooting the ball and dunking. He has a habit of playing out of control and making poor decisions. But so far, in what we've seen of Morrison in practice and the two exhibition, he looks like he's come a long way. He played relatively in control in both games, played very good defense, and looked very comfortable in the offense. He showed in the off-season that he's taking it all very seriously, working very hard on his game and his conditioning. Last year when he was redshirting, he was commonly among the last few players running sprints in practice; this year, he leads the pack in sprints. His outside shooting is going to be dearly needed from the two-guard position, along with the same good defense he's shown so far. He has really responded to Howland's coaching and looks to be a pleasant surprise for the season.
Dijon Thompson: The returning leading scorer on the team, Thompson has some big responsibilities this year – that is, carrying the team's scoring. Averaging 14 points a game last year, Thompson is really the only proven scorer in this starting lineup. His outside shot is very good, not great, but he can score from various places on the court, and Howland's motion offense will be designed to get Thompson 20 shots a game. It's pretty clear that Thompson has a green light from Howland, shooting the ball whenever he gets a semi-open look in the two exhibition games. Getting Thompson those looks and getting him in a rhythm could be a huge key to how successful UCLA's offense is this year. It's also a key season for Thompson, with the opportunity for him to dispel any label of being soft or not playing hard on defense. Thompson brings some very nice play-making to wing spot also, with a nice passing ability. He could move over to the two during the season if and when T.J. Cummings returns and Trevor Ariza moves to the three.
Trevor Ariza: For a team that is thin, in many ways, how Ariza has performed in the two exhibition games is a great relief. Without Cummings for a few games, and with the loss of Andre Patterson, UCLA's frontcourt didn't have much in the way of returning players. Enter Ariza, the highly-touted freshman who has come to UCLA with improved skills from just last spring in high school and a very competitive attitude, while also some very exceptional athleticism. Ariza is probably the #1 NBA prospect on UCLA's roster, with very good quickness for his size. At 6-7, he's definitely more of a fit at small forward, but will have to move his 197-pound body down low on defense, at least until Cummings returns. As Howland has said, he's a tough matchup offensively, with the ability to score facing the basket. His outside shooting, if it continues like it has in the two exhibition games, is drastically improved from high school. He not only has improved his stroke, but his confidence taking the shot. In and around the basket, he's active and quick off his feet, which has gotten him the most rebounds of any player in practice. With Thompson having struggled a bit to score in the first two exhibition games, seemingly fearless Ariza stepped up, not hesitating to take open shots and crash the boards. He also brings a great dimension to the team with his great natural ability to pass the ball, making this team overall a great passing team. He'll probably struggle defensively in the first several games when he has to guard players quite a bit bigger than he is. But how comfortable he is as a freshman so far, projecting how much more improved and comfortable he could be by the end of the season, especially if he's guarding threes instead of fours, is exciting.
Michael Fey: It was a bit of a surprise when Howland named Fey the starter over Ryan Hollins. But if you know Howland, it really wasn't. Howland emphasizes defense, strength and toughness, and while Hollins might look springier and more athletic than Fey, Fey has the size and bulk to anchor the paint on defense. He's another player that has worked very hard in the off-season, improving his body and athleticism, and has continued to develop his skills. He, in games, has looked nervous, fumbling the ball and traveling at times. But the more he plays, the more comfortable he's looked, especially in the last exhibition game. Fey has improved offensively, with better post footwork and a developing go-to, quick, left-handed jump hook. He also has a nice touch on his jump shot out to about 15 feet, which he'll take if he gets an open look. When he catches the ball at the high post in this offense it's key that he's a threat to shoot from there to open up opportunities for his teammates. He's played very good post defense in the two exhibition games, playing under control, keeping his feet and getting position. With two young post players, fouls will be an issue all year, so it's imperative that Fey stays under control and out of foul trouble. The biggest question with Fey is his rebounding. At 6-11 he's not as effective rebounding the ball as you'd like him to be, still relying a bit too much on his height rather than working for good rebounding position. Overall, UCLA will need a solid year from Fey if they want to be successful.
T.J. Cummings: It's expected that Cummings will return for the Loyola Marymount game December 13th. It's also expected that, maybe not initially, but he'll eventually move into the starting lineup after he returns. Cummings has some skills and talent that will should work well in Howland's system, one that favors a four man who can face the basket, step out and shoot, which is what Cummings actually does the best. In practice, Cummings has looked the best he ever has since he's been at UCLA. When he plays within Howland's philosophy, he's setting a lot of screens offensively, peeling off and catching the ball and shooting, which is perfect for him. It will limit how much Cummings puts the ball on the floor, which gets him in trouble. At 6-9 and 220 pounds and bigger than Ariza, he'll give Howland a better body to defend at the four position, and Cummings, who hasn't been known to be a great defender while at UCLA, has responded in practice. He knows that he needs to play defense and rebound for Howland if he hopes to play, and in his senior season, Cummings is motivated. All reports, actually, are that Cummings has been a very good soldier, doing the classwork he needs to get eligible again, and working hard in practice and in doing what Howland wants him to do.
Ryan Hollins will be the biggest contributor off the bench. At nearly 7-0 and very athletic, Hollins will be what Howland calls a "one-two punch" at the five with Mike Fey. Fey will provide the bulk, and Hollins will provide the athleticism. He is truly amazing in how he can jump for his height. And despite the obvious athletic advantages, Hollins is continuing to develop his skills. He could always shoot fairly well, but was very raw in the post, but has shown great improvement in his footwork and touch around the basket. His ability to hold position in the post, with the weight he's gained, is perhaps his best improvement. Defensively, also, he's looked good in the two exhibition games, playing good positional defense, which allows his athleticism to overcome his lack of bulk.
After those first seven, 6-3 wing Janou Rubin will be the next off the bench. Rubin, a walkon who was given a scholarship for the season, if you remember, looked like the walkon with the best chance of contributing when he came to the program three years ago. He has a good body at almost 200 pounds, and is physical. What has got him in Howland's rotation is playing tough on defense with also a very improved outside shooting touch.
As Howland has said, Cedric Bozeman will get 30+ minutes at the point, unless he's hurt or in foul trouble. The other 10 minutes or so at that position will go to Ryan Walcott, who is in his redshirt junior year. Walcott has steadily improved while at UCLA, and his jump shot has made a big leap of improvement since last year. UCLA will need him to give Bozeman a rest, play solidly, not make mistakes, and play defense.
Josiah Johnson will also be in the rotation for about 10 minutes a game, spelling Ariza at the four, at least until Cummings returns. Johnson looked like he had lost weight to try to become more of a three last season, but has added bulk this season, up to 257 pounds, to be able to play better defensively at the four. While he's limited athletically, Johnson does have a good shooting touch, which lends itself well to what Howland wants his four to do.
Matt McKinney is out with a fractured foot until probably at least the end of December, even though he says it will be earlier. It's hard to know if the 6-8 forward who is in his redshirt freshman year will be able to contribute much when he returns. It's a question how much his injury will limit him, and plus how much he's merely capable of contributing. You can probably expect that he'll be able to give Howland another body in the frontcourt and five more fouls.
Senior guard Jon Crispin is after Rubin in the perimeter rotation. Crispin, who is limited athletically, has a good outside shot from deep, and could, at times, be an option if UCLA really needs to shore up its outside shooting.
As the season progresses, you can probably expect Howland not to go much deeper than nine players, unless forced to by injury or foul trouble. That would mean, typically, that playing time would mostly be taken up by Bozeman, Thompson, Ariza, Morrison, Fey, Hollins, and Cummings, with Rubin and Walcott getting probably 10 minutes a piece, and Johnson seeing spot duty.
Overall, the team is fairly thin talent-wise. As we've said, probably the biggest issue throughout the season could be foul trouble or injury. If one player among the top seven goes down, there just isn't much of a bench after that to step in. The season's success could depend very greatly on the health of the team.
The squad should be solid offensively, having lapses while it still gets the kinks out of Howland's motion offense and gets the 40 or so plays down smoothly. The motion offense is something, though, that most players today have been running since they were in high school and are far more comfortable with it than other offenses. The team already looked far more comfortable in the motion in the two exhibition games than it has offensively for a few years. The team will depend on its passing ability to be successful, not only in the halfcourt offense, but against presses, since it lacks great backcourt ballhandling.
Defensive will probably determine the success of the season. Playing tough defense and rebounding are staples of Howland's teams, and much of the offensive scoring is to take advantage of transition, which is keyed by good defense and rebounding. Protecting the paint, helping down low in defending opposing teams' post player, and on-the-ball pressure is imperative.
It's always difficult to foresee just how tough a schedule is. Going into a season, many teams end up being not near as good as you might have thought, and some others end up better. UCLA's schedule looks to be fairly tough, with non-conference games against known commodities like Kentucky, Michigan State, Michigan and Notre Dame. But some of the lesser names, like UC Santa Barbara, who is picked to win the Big West, could be tough outs.
Vermont, W, 1-0
UC Riverside, W, 2-0
Kentucky (Arrowhead Pond), L, 2-1
Loyola Marymount, W, 3-1
UC Santa Barbara, W, 4-1
Michigan State, L, 4-2
@ Michigan, L, 4-3
Oregon State, W, 5-3
Oregon, W, 6-3
@ Washington State, W, 7-3
@ Washington, L, 7-4
Arizona State, W, 8-4
Arizona, L, 8-5
@ Stanford, L, 8-6
@ California, L, 8-7
USC, W, 9-7
@ St. John's, W, 10-7
Washington, W, 11-7
Washington State, W, 12-7
@ Arizona State, L, 12-8
@ Arizona, L, 12-9
California, W, 13-9
Stanford, L, 13-10
@ USC, W, 14-10
Notre Dame, W, 15-10
@ Oregon State, W, 16-10
@ Oregon, L, 16-11
You can probably expect the team to continue to improve as the season wears on. This team, as it gets comfortable with its new systems and new coaching staff, will probably be quite a bit better in the latter half of the year than it will be in the first half. That's why, in predicting the win-loss game by game, we're giving UCLA some wins toward the end of the season we might not if the games had been earlier. A couple of those would be wins against USC at the Sports Arena and against Notre Dame at home in late February. It's balanced by losses early at Michigan, and even at Washington on the team's first Pac-10 road trip.
Pac-10 Standings Prediction:
While Arizona seems to be the consensus pick to win the Pac-10, we'll go with Stanford. Arizona is more talented in its first five, no doubt, but they're not deep in their frontcourt, and while they have many very good athletes, the team's overall basketball sense is a bit limited. Stanford, on the other hand, is always better than it is on paper, and they have a very solid, deep team that is probably among its most talented in years.
Arizona State, 8-10
Washington State, 3-15
Oregon State, 2-16
Continuing-to-improve UCLA plays Cal in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament and wins. The Bruins then play #1-seed Stanford in the second round and lose, finishing with a 17-12 record.
With 17 wins, UCLA is a bubble team for the NCAA tournament. But finishing fifth in the Pac-10, with a high RPI, and a good showing late in the season, UCLA gets into the Big Dance. The Bruins get an 8 or 9 seed, and beat Dayton, Western Kentucky or NC State in the first round of the tournament. In the second round, as an 8 or 9 seed, they face the #1 seed in their region, Duke, and the Bruins play the Blue Devils, the eventually NCAA champs, very close before losing by 10.
UCLA finishes with an 18-13 record overall, fifth place in the Pac-10, one win in the NCAA tournament, and a tough showing against the eventual NCAA champ in Duke, and it's considered a huge accomplishment from where the program was a year ago and a great foundation for the future.