The Bruins suffer an important personnel loss from last season: Earl Watson. Earl averaged 14.7 ppg, 5.2 apg, 1.9 spg and hit 35.6% of his 3s as the undeniable heart and soul of the team. Never has a player expended so much effort and drawn so much criticism from his own team's fans. UCLA will undeniably miss Earl's clutch shooting, leadership, effort and defense. Perhaps UCLA will not miss his all-too many forced shots and passes quite so much, but Earl's mistakes were always the result of his trying to do too much to help his team win, rather than any selfishness on his part. Earl was drafted in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft by the Seattle Supersonics this year and apparently is in a good position to make the team (as is former Bruin JaRon Rush, according to reports).
The Bruins also lost Ryan "Moose" Bailey (12.0 mpg, 2.2 ppg, 1.0 apg), and Jason Flowers (6.6 mpg, 1.1 ppg, 0.7 apg), both former walk-on PGs who wound up starting games and making a solid contribution to the club.
We might note the following personnel losses at other Pac-10 schools:
Stanford:Mike McDonald, Ryan Mendez, Jarron Collins Jason Collins (In addition, Teyo Johnson is playing football this year and his status and effectiveness for the basketball season is unclear).
Arizona: Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright, Loren Woods, Eugene Edgerson, Justin Wessel, Lamont Frazier.
USC: Jeff Trepagnier, Brian Scalabrine, Jarvis Turner, Nate Hair.
Cal: Sean Lampley, Nick Vander Laan.
Oregon: Bryan Bracey, Julius Hicks, Flo Hartenstein.
Oregon State: DeAundre Tanner, Jason Heide, Josh Steinthal, Emonte Jernigan.
Washington State: Mike Bush, David Adams, Framecio Little.
Arizona State: Alton Mason, Tyson Johnston.
Washington: Bryan Brown, Michael Johnson, Thalo Green, Will Perkins.
In short, most Pac-10 teams lost at least 2 key players, and the conference has been virtually stripped of its top inside players. UCLA is 1 of 4 teams returning 4 starters (of those teams, only UCLA and Cal finished over .500 in conference last year), and 1 of 2 teams (along with USC) returning 3 double-figure scorers (Billy Knight does not count as a double-figure scorer in this regard).
In addition, while Arizona, Washington, Stanford, Cal and USC have all brought in highly regarded recruiting classes, most recruiting analysts have rated UCLA's incoming class as the top class in the conference (at least one recruiting service rated UCLA's class #1 in the country when it included Mike Fey, which it probably still will*).
Based on these two factors, 1) more returning talent than anyone else, and 2) better recruits than anyone else, the UCLA Bruins, not surprisingly, seem to be a pretty good bet to win the Pac-10 this season, and virtually all media sources agree with our analysis in that regard. Here's the projected starting lineup, the top line reserves, and the rest of the roster (listed heights are a combination of official measurements and personal observation, which don't always agree):
Starters: Cedric Bozeman, 6-6 FR, Billy Knight, 6-5 SR, Jason Kapono, 6-7 JR, Matt Barnes, 6-8 SR, Dan Gadzuric, 6-11 SR
Reserves: Ray Young, 6-3 SR, Rico Hines, 6-4 SR, Andre Patterson, 6-7 FR, Dijon Thompson, 6-7 FR, TJ Cummings, 6-9 SO, Mike Fey, 6-11 FR*, Ryan Walcott, 6-0 FR, Janou Rubin, 6-3 SO, Josiah Johnson, 6-6 FR, John Hoffart, 6-10 SO.
(*Mike Fey is expected to enroll at UCLA in time to play in the UC-Irvine game on December 15)
Before we launch into a short profile of each player, let's take an overview at what we're likely to see this year from the Bruins on offense and defense. Observers might note that the Bruins appear to go at least 11 deep in quality players; this might be the deepest Bruins team in many, many years.
Offense: The Bruins utilize the so-called "1-4" offense as their basic halfcourt offensive set. We've studied a great deal of material about the 1-4 offense, written by many coaches. The more we read, the less we understand, probably because every coach has their own wrinkles which they've added to the mix. UCLA is no exception in this regard. Indeed, the coaches call their offense the "2 Game," rather than the 1-4. In addition, UCLA's 1-4 combines notable elements from the John Wooden high post offense and the traditional motion offense (and even some plays from the Lakers' triple-post offense), and this year will include even more elements from those offensive systems than in the past.
Figuring out what "1-4" means is pretty easy. If you are a UCLA fan, you have no doubt noticed the Bruins initiating many offensive sets from this basic formation: A player above the top of the key holds the ball, and the other 4 players line up a few feet apart across a horizontal line at about the 15 foot mark from the basket. That's your 1 and your 4. Now, Ralph Miller would have added the following: You start with that formation in order to create opportunities for attacking the basket by forcing the defenders to space themselves out as widely as possible across the floor. From that formation, you use a sequence of virtually non-stop cutting by all five personnel, utilizing two post players and either three wings or two wings and a point guard who essentially functions like a wing most of the time (the point guard is expected to cut, go one-on-one, look for the open jumper and go backdoor as often as anyone else on the team). Cutting, and positioning to maintain enough space between the defenders, is emphasized at the expense of screens, which are seen as counterproductive.
The initial formation usually resolves itself at some point into a formation using a low post player on the strong side of the ball, the high post player on the weak side, and proper spacing and a system of constant cutting (not only by the wings, but by the posts as well) designed to create scoring opportunities off isolation plays and backdoor cuts (the positioning of the posts is designed to "open up" the weak side of the court for backdoor plays or overloads on the wings). The pass is preferred to the dribble to create scoring opportunities. As noted, through proper spacing, the defense is spread out and unable to double team or help consistently. By constant cutting, the isolated defenders eventually lose contact with their men and open jumpers, isolation plays, pick and rolls and backdoor layups are produced.
Got that? Well, now let Steve Lavin and Jim Saia take over, with an assist from Ralph Miller, John Wooden and Bobby Knight. The defense, of course, is going to counter your offense. If you start from the same formation every time, the defense will figure out how to disrupt it. So, you add wrinkles. Some of UCLA's wrinkles are designed to throw the defenses different looks at the very onset of the play, then move into the 1-4 set ("early motion sets"). We've all seen the double stacks down low, the double low-post formation where the post players switch sides across the lane, each setting a pick as they do so, etc. Like last year, UCLA will also employ some classic high post formations this season (they don't call it the "UCLA shuffle screen" for nothing). Having more of a pure point in Bozeman and 4 highly-mobile and athletic post players in Barnes, Cummings, Patterson and, at times, Thompson, two of whom, Cummings and Thompson, can consistently hit the 17-footer, should lend itself to this kind of offense (UCLA mainly utilized the high post in its '95 championship season, with Ed O'Bannon functioning as the high post player most of the time; Ed could receive the pass, square up and hit the midrange J or drive to the basket off that formation; Cummings and Thompson can do the same this year, as could Matt if he can hit that jumper).
UCLA will also utilize more motion offense this year (as they did in Lavin's first 3 seasons). Bobby Knight, an authority on the classic motion offense, refers to it as a "screening offense"; this is the major distinction between the 1-4 and the motion (Dean Smith and, by extension, Roy Williams, have their own ideas of a motion offense, which we won't get into here). In the motion, the post players, wings and point guards are all utilized in a series of pass and screen sets to free up jump shooters coming around those screens to create open jumpers. In the 1-4, the screen is de-emphasized as a tool. In Wooden's high post, screens were positional: A player would set a screen at a certain spot on the floor; it was up to the player utilizing that screen to make it effective by making sure he ran his man into the screener. In the motion, the screeners go looking for specific bodies to put their body on; hence, the more physical nature of the motion as opposed to a 1-4 or high post offense. The motion is also more complex and harder to defend for that reason, if executed well: The offensive players must not only seek out defenders to lay a body on, but the other offensive players must use more judgment to "read" when and how well those screens will be set, and how the defense will react or shift in response. Thus, the motion offense is also sometimes called a "reading" offense, and typically requires players with very sound fundamentals and multiple skills (as opposed to sheer athleticism).
With the presence of 6 upperclassmen and 5 talented sophomores and freshmen, including two freshmen, Bozeman and Thompson, who are particularly sound fundamentally and very highly-skilled, the Bruin coaches believe that they have the combination of experience, skills and depth (remember, a motion offense is very physical and you will see a lot of fouls) to run more motion than they have in the past. As opposed to the 1-4, the low post player mans the weak side of the court and the high post player the strong side, as primary screeners high and low for the jump shooters. Post players are expected to execute the pick and roll with particular skill in a motion offense; ball reversal can also effectively isolate the low post player deep inside for scoring opportunities. Attacking the basket via the dribble is frowned upon even more so by motion proponents than 1-4 advocates. Actually, all college coaches besides Billy Donovan frown upon this essential NBA skill. Which might explain why Donovan is the best college recruiter alive. Though UCLA, Michigan State and Arizona have all done their share of dribbling attacks recently as well.
With the added bulk and experience of Gadzuric, Barnes and Cummings and the addition of Fey and Patterson, one assumes the Bruins are better equipped to execute a motion offense this year than last year. Teams defending UCLA will undeniably focus on shutting down Jason Kapono first and second and Billy Knight third: Both Stanford and Duke beat UCLA last year in part by choking off their 3-point attack. If Gadzuric, Cummings and the other big bodies on the team go head-hunting, you could see Jason and Billy getting a few more open looks. The ability of Cedric Bozeman and Dijon Thompson to break down opposing defenses with the dribble, and the presence of 5 legitimate scoring threats down low in Barnes, Gadzuric, Cummings, Patterson and Fey will likely make it more difficult for teams to focus on shutting off UCLA's two primary shooters. Ced, though a freshman, is a more gifted passer and playmaker than Earl Watson. Ray Young is a player whose skills seem much more suited to a motion offense, and it's possible that a few new wrinkles in the Bruins' sets this season will help catapult Ray towards a strong senior year. In short, despite the loss of Earl Watson, UCLA's offense should be considerably more efficient and versatile this season than it was last year.
Zones can be attacked in a variety of ways. Lute Olson once said that the best way to attack the zone was to "shoot before the defense can set up." This makes sense. Indeed, the Bruin coaches hope to generate substantially more offense this year from break opportunities than has been the case in recent years. The four primary factors here will be playing 40 minutes of pressure defense every game, frequent rotation of players to keep fresh legs on the floor, the addition of some very athletic recruits, and especially the addition of Cedric Bozeman, who Lavin feels is the best passing point guard to enter UCLA since Tyus Edney. So, the coaches feel that UCLA will have its best break attack since the '95 championship season, and they expect substantially more layups and dunks this season than in the recent past.
Barring fast break opportunities, however, the classic attack against a zone relies on positioning your players (and feeding the ball) inside the gaps in the zone, having a strong post presence for quick inside-outside plays and "overloading" the zone on one side of the floor through frequent cuts and good ball movement via passing rather than dribbling. The presence of a lot of mobile post players and two of the best outside shooters in the country, plus the use of the 1-4 gives UCLA a lot of weapons to attack a zone. It seems unlikely that UCLA will be successfully zoned this year unless they just have a really bad shooting day.
With the addition of long-limbed, athletic players like Bozeman, Thompson and Patterson and the addition of another intense backcourt/wing defender in Hines and another big post body in Fey, the Bruins intend to play even more prolonged fullcourt pressure defense than last year. "40 minutes of Hell" is the basic goal. However, regardless of the newcomers, Jason Kapono, Billy Knight and Dan Gadzuric are all going to spend a lot of minutes on the floor and the team will still lack great quickness on the perimeter. UCLA assistant Patrick Sandle, a coach whose forte is pressure defenses, points out that the centers and forwards on most college teams these days are pretty good ballhandlers and it's just not easy to apply a fullcourt press effectively for long stretches of a game, let alone for 40 minutes non-stop. So, expect the Bruins to selectively pull back the pressure, but standard operating procedure will be a fullcourt press, both man and zone, along with a lot of intense halfcourt traps, double-teaming of the ball both inside and out, a lot of straight up man, and some matchup zone. The Bruins are definitely committed to keeping up the pressure for as long as possible; they will give up easy baskets for 30 minutes if it means their opponent hits the wall in the last 10 minutes. This is a high-risk approach to defense. Nolan Richardson, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Billy Donovan have seen those risks pay off in a big way when they had the depth to make it work. Hopefully, UCLA will see the same effect this year.
The loss of Earl Watson might be felt here more than in any other area, other than clutch shooting in a close game, but overall we believe the Bruins should expect definite improvement from last year, especially in two areas: The addition of the 6-6 Bozeman, 6-7+ Thompson and 6-4 Hines should allow the Bruins to do a better job of harassing opponents' 3-point shooting, and the added muscle and strength for Gadzuric and Cummings plus the addition of Patterson and Fey should enable the Bruins to do a better job of defending right under the basket, especially by denying deep position to offensive players, thus also limiting opponents' offensive rebounding more effectively than last year.
Part 3: Player Profiles
Part 4: Season Prediction