Basketball Preview, Part 1

Here's a look at the personnel on the 2004/2005 UCLA basketball team. This year's squad should be stellar in the backcourt, with depth, talent and experience. The question is: Can the thin, unproven backcourt be adequate enough?

The best thing to look forward to about the 2004-2005 season is that it's not the 2003-2004 season.

Or the 2002-2003 season, for that matter.

The 2004-2005 edition of the Bruins are the beginning of phase two in the resurrection of the UCLA basketball program.  Hiring Ben Howland was the beginning of phase one. Completing his first season and successfully recruiting an excellent recruiting class in 2004 was all part of that phase. 

But now, it's time to take it to another level of resurrection.

That, first and foremost, means more indication of a different brand of basketball than what UCLA fans have been used to for the last 8 years or so. It's further development of Howland-type ball, which emphasizes defense, rebounding, toughness, heart, discipline and fundamentals. 

Secondly, and probably to most fans most importantly, it means having to achieve a winning record this season.  UCLA is coming off an unprecedented two successive years of losing seasons.  That hasn't happened in 62 years, since 1942, when UCLA played teams like the Los Alamitos Naval Air Base and the Lockheed Vega All-Stars.

Securing a winning record will be the biggest possible boost to Howland's program, and to his recruiting. 

And, after a nice honeymoon where Howland has basically been given plenty of leeway, the sentiment around Westwood is that the honeymoon is pretty much over and the real marriage has begun.

Howland would probably be the first to tell you that, too.

Plus, very simply, while a winning season would have a huge impact in helping to resurrect the program, it's not the degree of impact a losing season would have in setting back the resurrection of the program.   Everything, right now, is pointing toward improvement and a winning season, so it'd be incredibly deflating if there were any other result.

So, no pressure, right?

The team, overall, gratefully, will look entirely different than it did last year or the previous year.  For one, there will be four new freshmen in nice, shiny new Bruin uniforms getting quite a bit of time on the floor.  UCLA hasn't had this many new faces since 2001 when the current seniors were freshmen. 

And not only will the new faces themselves make the team look different, the brand of basketball these new players bring to the team will considerably alter the look of the team.

This is Howland's first recruiting class, the first group of freshmen that come to UCLA being taught by Howland from day one, knowing what Howland expects, and embodying his philosophies. 

You might not recognize it, because you haven't seen it much, but this is going to be a group of tough-minded competitors. 

BACKCOURT

It's not going out too much on a limb to say UCLA's backcourt is going to be vastly improved.

But we'll go as far as to say that it will probably be among the few best backcourts in the Pac-10.

It has experience, talent (young and old), and depth.  It has a true point guard, some good playmakers, an array of very good shooters, and some athletes who can create their own shot.

The backcourt, as most do, will begin and end with the point guard.  Playing the position will be senior 6-6 senior Cedric Bozeman and McDonald's All-American, 6-1 freshman Jordan Farmar

Now, if you could combine the two players you'd probably have the ideal point guard.  And watch for UCLA to try to do that as much as humanly possible - that is, combine both of their assets to make for some superior play from the point guard position.

Bozeman and Farmar do really complement each other well.  With Farmar you have inexperience, which is countered by Bozeman's experience. With Bozeman, you have questionable shooting talent, which is offset by Farmar's great outside shooting. You have a potential weakness in Farmar's defense, and on the other hand you have Bozeman, who is the best on-the-ball defender on the squad.   Bozeman isn't good at bringing the ball up on the break, and Farmar excels at it.

Farmar is a true point guard, in every sense of the phrase. He is very good at getting his teammates in a position to score, and getting them the ball efficiently. He's an excellent passer, and a great shooter; if you ignore him and guard everyone else he'll make you pay. He's a leader. Many times your team reflects the personality of its point guard, and Farmar is relentless, tough and hard-working. 

Bozeman has improved, as he has just about every summer between seasons. His shot is better, while still not great.  He has a smoother, quicker stroke.  He's gotten bigger and stronger, and is more confident taking the ball to the basket.  He should improve on his scoring average from last season of 7.5 points per game.

While many believe that Bozeman, because of his experience, will be the primary option at point guard, we're pretty convinced that, by the end of the season, it will be Farmar who gets the majority of the minutes at point guard. 

In fact, it might not take long for it to be established. 

Farmar, because of those true point guard skills and intangibles, brings something to the floor that UCLA hasn't had in a long time, and something that Bozeman can't provide.  While Farmar will make some mistakes out of inexperience, and sometimes show weaknesses, especially on defense, the advantage of having a true point guard in the game who runs your team like a true point guard is too invaluable to not utilize. 

And it's not as if Farmar will be keeping Bozeman off the floor. Bozeman, with his length and athleticism, will get quite a few minutes playing alongside Farmar at the two and the three.   There are three perimeter positions, each getting 40 minutes a game. You can probably expect Bozeman to get at least 25 of those 120 minutes.   That could mean 10-15 of them at point guard and 10-15 of them playing either wing position. 

With Farmar and Bozeman on the court at the same time, it provides the team many different facets. You essentially have two point guards in the game, with double the capability of making plays and passing. You'd have a great playmaker and passer at the point in Farmar, and then the returning assist leader in the Pac-10 in Bozeman (5.5 per game), say, at your small forward position. That's a heck of a lot of potential assists.  It not only will create opportunities in the halfcourt, allowing Bozeman to recognize passing opportunities from the wing, but it will create so many more opportunities in transition, with Famar getting an outlet pass and feeding Bozeman down the court for him to create and pass to his teammates. 

Every team, if they could, would play with two point guards. Heck, they'd play with three point guards if they could get away with it. The problem is, most of the time, you can't because it creates such a defensive matchup problem.  But that's where Bozeman's uniqueness comes into play here. With his size and defensive ability, Bozeman isn't your typical point guard, especially defensively. He can guard opposing twos and threes with ease. In fact, he's more suited to it.

Then, also, offensively, while you might have a bit of a liability with Bozeman at the wing because of his lack of shooting, you have Farmar's excellent shooting ability to make up for it.  Also, one thing that Farmar does better than almost any other point guard we've seen is move without the ball.  When he's on the floor at the same time as Bozeman, sometimes he'll look very much like a wing, looking for screens to come off to get his shot.

We believe that the playmaking and passing potential of Bozeman and Farmar together will make it tough for Howland not to have them on the floor at the same time quite a bit.

And then the beauty of having talent, depth and versatility is that if, during the course of the game, you need a certain aspect of your game boosted, you have it available. If UCLA is playing Farmar and Bozeman and needs shooting, you have a collection of great-shooting wings to choose from.

6-2 senior Brian Morrison is the best shooter on the team. He won't miss too many open looks.  Retrospectively, the loss of Morrison, who shot 42.9% from three, and his shooting last year was really the main catalyst to UCLA's second-half slide.  He could very well start some games, when the personnel and matchups deem it an advantage. But no matter if he's starting or not, you can expect him to play significantly, merely because of what his shooting brings to the offense. 

Then you have McDonald's All-American, 6-5 freshman Arron Afflalo. Afflalo has been the consensus best all-around player on the team since the beginning of fall practice.  He's so well built and strong that he's just too big and physical much of the time. When you combine that with very good skills, particularly very good shooting, and a very good feel and knowledge of the game, you have a potentially big-impact player.  Afflalo brings such a new, refreshing attitude to the team, too - that type of Earl-Watson type of hard-nosed toughness and never-say-die mindset.  Afflalo is so good that he's going to see a great deal of minutes.

Josh Shipp is the other 6-5 freshman wing. Shipp, while he won't have the impact of Farmar or Afflalo, will still get some playing time as the fifth wing. He also brings good outside shooting ability to the floor, while still needing to step it up in intensity and defense. 

Janou Rubin, the 6-3 senior, isn't one to discount either. His shot was pretty solid last season, and it has improved. He brings experience and smarts to the court. He'll compete with Shipp for those fifth-wing minutes. 

At the small forward position is 6-7 senior Dijon Thompson, who returns for his senior season after investigating his NBA stock last spring.  Even though we haven't seen enough of the team to really make comprehensive assessments, it's pretty plain that Thompson, who led the team last season by averaging 14.4 points per game, has also improved over the off-season.  He has put in serious time to improving, learning how to be more effective offensively and, particularly, defensively.  So far in practice his intensity level has been the highest it's ever been while at UCLA. It's not only a testament to Thompson's desire to have a good senior season, but the competition provided by the freshmen.  Thompson, as a result, is hustling and giving up his body on defense.  He'll still be the reliable outside shooter, but watch for him to be more aggressive around the basket.

The five best players on the team are Afflalo, Thompson, Farmar, Bozeman and Morrison.  So, don't be surprised if you see UCLA using a smaller lineup quite often this year in an effort to get its best players on the floor. You could see three-guard lineups, and even four-guard lineups at times. A typical lineup could consist of Farmar, Bozeman and Afflalo at the three perimeter positions, with Thompson at the four with a post player.  In college basketball, there just aren't very many big, physical dominating four men anymore, and it allow UCLA to get its better talent on the court.  The potential advantage offensively in matchups would be intriguing.  Having a bigger, slower power forward having to guard Dijon Thompson would be very good for UCLA. But, on the other hand, Thompson has to guard that bigger power forward on the other end of the court.

FRONTCOURT

From experience, depth and talent in the backcourt, to rawness, inexperience and thinness in the frontcourt.

UCLA has four post players who will play most of the minutes at the four and five positions.  Two of them, 6-11 Michael Fey and 6-11 Ryan Hollins, are juniors who are still unproven, with one of them being setback by off-season knee surgery.  One, 6-8 Matt McKinney, is a redshirt sophomore who was thought to be a mid-major out of high school that, due to injury, hasn't played while at UCLA.  The fourth, 6-9 Lorenzo Mata, is a talented but very raw freshman.

It doesn't sound particularly promising.  But UCLA's backcourt has the potential to be so good that the frontcourt only really has to be adequate for UCLA to have a relatively successful season.

The question is: What is adequate?

If UCLA can get some decent defense and rebounding from its frontcourt, that would be considered adquate.

But that could be a challenge.

Hollins and Fey averaged 6.7 rebounds per game - combined.  Not each. Combined. Fey averaged just 2.4. That's from your starting center.

Fey, simply, will have to be better for UCLA to succeed this season. All indications are that he has improved (but then again, we asserted that in last season's preview).  He is now about 275 pounds, having slimmed down but put on pounds of muscle.  He's quicker off his feet and more agile.  He has improved offensively, with his outside jumper pretty automatic from 15 feet in. He has developed a nice array of inside moves, particularly effective jump hooks with either hand.  He still has the tendency to bring the ball down and even dribble in the post, and to fumble passes.  He'll have to show improvement catching the ball and taking his time in the post to be effectively offensively. He'll still struggle at times probably, but be improved. We can probably expect about 10 points a game from him, at least.  His rebounding, though, doesn't look drastically improved. He'll be better, just because he's bigger and stronger, but don't look for him to be light-years different as a rebounder.

Hollins has been setback by his return from off-season knee surgery. In practice, he doesn't look close to the level he was toward the end of last season when he was making some big improvements.  Without an experienced four man, Hollins has been earmarked so far as a four, trying to get him and Fey on the court at the same time. Hollins shoots pretty well facing the basket, but struggles to rebound when he's further away from the hoop, which the four position dictates. He's most effective offensively when he has room to operate from the top of the key, if he can keep from traveling.  He also looks like he's not quite the quick pogo stick he was before the injury, when he was a decent shot blocker.  Hopefully he'll use the two and a half weeks to shake off some of the rust from sitting out for 4 ½ months this summer. 

Matt McKinney has been the best surprise so far in practice, and it's one that was sorely needed, with so few frontcourt players on the roster. McKinney has be near a record for having been in the program the longest as a scholarship player and having never really played. Last year as a redshirt freshman, he sat out the season due to a fractured bone in his foot that has since healed.  McKinney, in the off-season, took Howland's weight room advocacy to heart, bulking up in both his upper and lower body to about 225.  In practice, Howland has been very pleased since McKinney has bought into Howland's other philosophies - the ones on setting screens, blocking out, playing defense and rebounding.  McKinney has proven to be a decent rebounder in practice, too, with good quickness off the floor.  His liability right now could be offensively, with an inconsistent jumper and no real inside moves.  But he's playing hard and being physical and, as of right now, it's been effective enough to have him slightly ahead of Hollins for the starting four spot.

Behind Fey at center is freshman Lorenzo Mata.  Mata has looked very raw, still learning how to play the game, but he's probably the most naturally gifted post player on the team. He's quick off the floor, particularly off the second jump, which makes him a good rebounder and a good scorer close to the basket. He has a bit awkward but actually decent outside shot.  Mata is getting better every day, but with someone so raw he's bound to make many mistakes this year, particularly on defense when he goes up against savvy, experienced centers. He's expected to provide back-up minutes at the center position, and a boost at rebounding.  By the end of the season expect to see Mata vastly improved and possibly getting even more minutes.

Critical to success in the frontcourt - and overall - is UCLA's big men staying healthy. They are so thin that one significant injury could really impact the season. It's similar to how thin they were in the backcourt last season and how Morrison's injury hurt them. 

Josiah Johnson, the 6-7 senior, will be used for some minutes at the four spot. Johnson has lost about 20 pounds and looks like he's in very good shape. He's a good outside shooter who also knows how to play but is just limited at this level by his athleticism.

OVERALL

The team should be perimeter oriented offensively, with so many talented bodies providing steady shooting, scoring and passing from the outside.  The question will be whether the frontcourt can be adequate, and that means mostly 1) rebound and 2) play decent defense and 3) provide a modicum of inside scoring to keep opposing teams from extending their defense.

The squad should be much improved in transition, with more depth among its guards and wings, enabling the team to run. Farmar will also improve the amount of transition points, getting the ball up the court quicker. Watch for UCLA to do well in spotting up in semi-transition, with Farmar finding his shooters left open before the defense has time to find them.

Defensively, the squad should be much improved on the perimeter, particularly with on-the-ball defense. Last year the team struggled to keep quick slashing types in front of them, but that will drastically improve with Bozeman matching up more on wings, and not being so tired playing 38 minutes a game, and with the likes of Afflalo and a healthy Morrison. 

Inside, defensively, it's still an unknown.  Fey has gotten so much stronger and looks to be playing better defensively.  Hollins, having been unable to put time into building up his lower body, still looks like he'll be able to get pushed around a bit inside. Mata is physical, but will probably be hurt by his lack of experience.  If McKinney can provide solid defense on opposing fours he's going to be playing quite a bit, and early indications in practice is that he's putting in an effort to be tough inside. But there will have to be some unexpected things happen for UCLA to have some good inside defense. Either one or two - or even three - of Hollins, McKinney and Mata stepping up could very well determine how successful UCLA's season will be.  It could be the difference between a 16 or 17 win season and one possibly approaching 20 wins.

Next Up: A look ahead at the Pac-10 and the schedule...


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