It's his third season as the UCLA head coach, the year you're expected by industry standards to really make significant advances in your program. Howland, in his previous head coaching stops at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, has delivered convincingly in the past. At Northern Arizona he posted a 21-7 record in his third year, which was the 10th best single-season turnaround in NCAA history. At Pittsburgh, he led the Panthers to a third-year record of 29-6, which was a school record, a Sweet Sixteen appearance and Howland was a consensus National Coach of the Year.
So, you're expected to deliver in your third year, and Howland's always done it. Can he do it at UCLA?
Last season, in Howland's second year, the program made strides. UCLA posted an 18-11 record and made the NCAA tournament, after losing seasons and no NCAA tournament appearance for the two previous years. He finished a surprising third in the Pac-10, while starting three freshmen and a 205-pound power forward.
You could say that last season was at – or possibly a little above – expectation, given where the program had come from, which was the decimation under former coach, Steve Lavin.
So, what would be at – or possibly a little above – expectation for Howland's third year at UCLA?
We'll get into win-loss expectations a bit later.
But first, let's get into the personnel.
You might think it would be relatively difficult to do a preview of the UCLA basketball team for the 2005-2006 season, since they currently have five players injured and not playing – and they're the guys you might actually project as your five starters.
But really, it's not that big of a mystery.
Overall, looking at the entire season, you really do have some known commodities at four of the five positions.
GUARDS AND WINGS
The biggest question mark in terms of injury and personnel is 6-5 Josh Shipp, the sophomore small forward. On September 28th, he had athroscopic right hip surgery, and has been on crutches for most of the last month. He was projected last week as being seven to eight weeks away from playing, which would enable him to return in time for Pac-10 conference play in late December.
If it all happens that way, then everything would be relatively fine in terms of injuries and personnel.
But you have to think that Shipp's injury, rehab and return might not be as predictable as is hoped. This isn't saying we have any inside information about his potential recovery, but that, just speculating, there could be some resulting issues. For one, what if he doesn't recover in the time projected? He might very well not be 100% for the remainder of the season. It would surprising if he's actually in great physical shape when he returns.
So, conservatively, it's not a stretch to predict that Josh Shipp might not be as effective this season overall as you might have believed pre-hip injury. He could still be very good and very productive, but you have to discount in a little that he just won't be the player he would have been without the injury or surgery.
It's a significant assertion, since UCLA being ranked in pre-season polls and being considered a Sweet Sixteen contender was based mostly on the anticipation that the three returning former-freshmen starters would carry the team with their improved, matured play this season.
Shipp still should be improved, having gotten physically bigger, now weighing 210 pounds. Before his injury, he looked like his athleticism had improved also, with more explosiveness going to the basket. His shot had shortened up, which is bound to help him improve the 28% he shot from behind the three-point arc last season. He is UCLA's best returning rebounder (5.2 per game) and he'll have to increase that number to help replace Dijon Thompson's 8 missing rebounds a game.
Shipp has such a great feel for the game, with a craftiness and nose for the ball around the basket, which got him points in the paint, particularly off rebounds and loose balls. His defense was just okay, sometimes lacking the strength and foot quickness to stay with the bigger, more mature wings UCLA faced last year, but his improved strength should help him on that front.
But how much will the injury set back Shipp? And after he returns, will he have that improved explosiveness? Will his skills be rusty?
Really, those are the biggest mysteries facing this season in terms of personnel.
Probably one of the biggest known quantities for the season is Jordan Farmar, the 6-2 sophomore point guard, who made many freshman All-American lists last season and was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. Farmar is UCLA's leading returning scorer, having averaged 13.2 points per game a season ago, and he'll be expected to increase that number, and generally further improve his game, this season.
In the off-season Farmar got bigger and stronger. Last year when he entered UCLA he was about 170 pounds and he's now about 185. It's easy to see that he's more muscular. Farmar, though, still has somewhat of a narrow frame, with a narrow waist; he's just about as buffed out as he possibly can be, given his frame.
His added strength, though, will be a key addition to Farmar's game. Watching him over the summer and in the fall workouts and practices, he definitely looks stronger on the ball and is tougher to knock off the dribble, which was an issue for him last season. Farmar got a bit worn down at times, as any freshman point guard would who was asked to play 34 minutes per game, and the added strength should improve his durability.
Farmar generally looks more confident and more instinctive than he did a year ago. After learning Howland's offense and philosophy it looks far more second nature for Farmar now. His shot, which was excellent for a freshman point guard a year ago, looks even better, with a quicker stroke to go with far more confidence. He's also far looser in looking to pass the ball, knowing where he can find his teammates in the half court with passes.
The signature play for UCLA last season was the on-ball screen at the top of the key for Farmar, and you can expect to see it even more this season. Yes, it's predictable, but if the opponent struggles to stop it, why shouldn't you continue to do it? Farmar is so good with it, being able to utilize his shiftiness in finishing at the basket, pulling up and shooting when he has space or finding a teammate off the screen with a pass. Farmar isn't necessarily the quickest of point guards, so the on-ball screen helps him get separation, and he's so good at creating from it that UCLA will undoubtedly rely heavily on it this season.
Farmar's defense was an issue a season ago. He sometimes was physically overwhelmed last season by bigger and stronger opponents and got fatigued because of how many minutes he was forced to play. His improved strength and (hopefully) less playing time will help him defensively this season, but Farmar tends to disregard defense compared to the rest of his game, so it will be interesting to see if he really has made considerable strides defensively this year.
It wouldn't be too much to expect, also, that Farmar this season matures as a floor leader, and a team leader. Farmar has a tendency to blame others for mistakes, when sometimes they were his own. As a true freshman point guard playing 34 minutes a game last season, it cropped up a few times. Reports are that he's improved considerably in this area, and has learned how to better lead his team without alienating them.
Probably the biggest question regarding Farmar heading into this season is whether he'll be good enough to actually consider going pro next spring. It's hard to fathom that he would be, the conventional wisdom being that he could use at least one more year for his game, his body and his approach to the game to mature. But with how watered down the NBA is today, it's not inconceivable that Farmar would have a chance to put his name in the NBA draft next spring legitimately. The type of season he has, of course, will determine it.
Either way, if he goes or returns for his junior year, UCLA will need to recruit next spring and summer with the assumption that they'll have his scholarship available in the 2007-2008 season, Farmar's senior year. Even if he somehow returns for his senior year, and you then have one commitment too many, so much can change in a program (players leaving, academics, etc.) that it still behooves UCLA to recruit this spring and summer like they have Farmar's scholarship to give for the 2007-2008 season.
If we had to lay percentages, it's probably 60-40 that he stays for his junior year – and then probably close to 90% that he'd leave after his junior year.
Arron Afflalo, the sophomore shooting guard, is starting the season with a bruised thigh, which has sidelined him since Saturday. He didn't practice Tuesday and is questionable for the exhibition Friday night against Carleton.
But that's all the short-term stuff on Afflalo. The thigh injury won't affect his performance long-term for the season.
Afflalo came to UCLA with a great body, and he's improved upon it, now about 215 pounds and even stronger than he was. Not known for great hops, his athleticism generally has improved also from his freshman year.
Also looking improved is Afflalo's outside shot, which still was pretty good as a freshman, shooting 38% from three, and almost 11 points per game. The issue with his stroke has been his arc, that sometimes it tends to be fairly flat. But he's improved it in the off-season, with the ball now coming out higher in his release and quite a bit softer.
Afflalo has also improved his general feel for the game, which was already pretty good. Perhaps having played a season with Farmar and Shipp has contributed to being more comfortable also, and in the times we've seen him play with them this summer the three of them looked completely in sync in terms of offensive flow.
Afflalo was the team's defensive stopper on the perimeter last season, getting assigned to the opponent's best offensive player almost every game. The best thing about Afflalo as a defender is how he relishes it, really welcomes the challenge and prides himself on his defense. He'll continue to play that role, and should be even more improved with a year's experience and knowledge, and improved strength and athleticism. Afflalo's defense really is a huge dimension to the three UCLA sophomores that compounds their effectiveness.
Cedric Bozeman, the 6-6 redshirt senior, is a bit of a wildcard for the season – for many reasons. First, he's coming off ACL surgery from last November that made him miss, of course, all of last season. Secondly, Bozeman will be playing primarily off the ball for the first time in his UCLA career, mostly at the small forward or shooting guard positions rather than point guard.
Before he went down with the torn ACL a year ago, he was perhaps UCLA's best player in the pre-season practices. He was very effective slashing to the basket, on the wing handling the ball, and passing the ball as a point forward.
If he could actually get back to that form, it'd be easy to predict that Bozeman would have a very significant impact on the season. The question is – can he get back to that pre-injury form? He's wearing a big brace on his knee, and Howland indicated that he'd probably wear if for the entire season. No matter how non-restrictive they say it is, you still have to believe it will hamper his mobility somewhat. And mentally and emotionally, there's a question whether Bozeman will push his knee like he would before he was injured, or be tentative and favor it. In fall practice, he started off fairly tentative and rusty, but recently has been more assertive. He admitted that he might not be 100% yet, but feels he'll be able to get there with more court time, particularly once he gets some games under his belt and realizes he can cut on the knee and it won't buckle.
Bozeman's shot isn't ever going to be superior. It just isn't. It has gotten better, with his stroke looking a bit more comfortable. But it's still not a smooth, natural stroke. He'll definitely take open outside jumpers, and he'll have to make a few if he's going to get defenders to have to come out and honor his shot.
What Bozeman will almost certainly bring to the court is another playmaker, ball-handler and passer to complement Farmar. Bozeman led the Pac-10 in assists in 2003-2004, and it's a great asset to now have him creating as a small forward. It takes a big burden off of Farmar also, and will perhaps open up Farmar more often as an offensive weapon, particularly allowing UCLA to take more advantage of Farmar's outside shooting ability. He'll also bring a great deal of experience, having started 62 games in his career.
If Bozeman can come close to being as good as he looked in practice last season before he was injured, he could have a big senior season. It probably won't be the caliber of Dijon Thompson's senior season, but he could potentially be a very big factor in UCLA's season because of the versatility, dimensions and options an effective Bozeman offers.
The two other perimeter players are incoming freshmen, 6-4 shooting guard Mike Roll, and 6-0 point guard Darren Collison. Roll comes to UCLA as probably the best outside shooter that Westwood has seen since probably Jason Kapono. Sometimes he's off, admittedly, but most of the time he's on, and it's a quick, smooth, soft stroke. He has the ability to get the shot off very quickly, in very little space, and he's so good at using screens, with also great balance and refinement in his shot. Watching Roll come off a screen and Farmar find him with a perfect pass is a very pretty thing.
Roll also brings a very good natural offensive feel, and a very good passing ability. He's not shifty, by any means, off the dribble, but he's quick, and he's very good at controlled dribbling, with good size and strength, that gives him enough room to make him deadly in mid-range. He's not an explosive athlete, and isn't a big finisher, but can be sneaky around the basket. His defense is still developing, with Roll having to learn to out-think quicker opponents and not take too many risks.
When Shipp returns, the minutes on the perimeter are going to dry up, with Afflalo, Shipp and Bozeman probably eating up at least 70 of the 80 available minutes as the two wing positions. Roll will be asked to play a supporting, well, role, as a freshman, as a zone-busting and offense-lifting shooter off the bench.
Once the rotation gets established, Collison very well might not have the opportunity for many minutes his freshman season either. Through different player combinations, Bozeman very well could function as a point guard this season, which could limit Collison's minutes. It's not necessarily a bad thing, with Collison having a great deal of talent but a long way to go in experience. It would be too much to ask of him in his freshman year to have to be the only option to spell Farmar. If Farmar, say, got in early foul trouble, it could be too much of a responsibility for Collison to have to play 25 minutes at point guard and run the team against Arizona.
Collison, as we stated, has a world of potential. He's easily the quickest guy on the team, and can take just about anyone off the dribble. He's also gotten bigger, probably a true 6-0 now and looking more filled out (Howland says he's 155 pounds now, while he was 140 when they weighed him during his high school senior year). When he comtinues to get bigger and stronger, and you combine that with his quickness and skills, you have a potentially very good player on your hands.
Collison's skills, right now, are good, but need to be developed. He's a very good shooter, while he has a long, high-slung stroke – kind of like Dijon Thompson's. Howland said, for now, they wouldn't try to mess with it since it's going in. He's especially good at breaking down a defender and then pulling up. He's also a very good passer, and has good vision. With his quickness and ability to push the ball, Collison will be integral in developing UCLA's running game over the next couple of years.
Overall, though, Collison needs to learn how to play point guard. He played mostly off the ball in high school, which probably stunted his growth at the point guard position. Having to shoulder so much of the scoring burden on his high school team, too, gave him more of a scorer's mentality than a point guard's. Offensively, he'll have to learn how to think more like a point, and get stronger so he can stay on his dribble. Defensively, he not only has to get stronger, but really learn how to play, such as knowing how close to stay to a defender, not to over-commit and using his quickness to beat bigger – but slower – opponents to the spot. All of these things are what he's been struggling with since practice started a few weeks ago.
It's actually a very good situation for Collison, at UCLA. He's not ready to run the point at an elite high major program, but he has the potential to do so. He'll, then, have a couple of years to learn how to do it while getting physically bigger, while also getting a controlled amount of actual game experience. This season, you can expect him to probably get more playing time early on in UCLA's easier non-conference schedule, but less time once the bench shortens up for Pac-10 play.
Janou Rubin, the 6-3 walk-on shooting guard, has been practicing with the team so far since school started. Rubin, as many know, is in his sixth year, and he's been petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. While the NCAA is reviewing his request, he's allowed to practice with the team for 30 days (starting Oct. 14th). Most people close to the situation are skeptical he'll get granted that sixth year. At this point, given all the injuries, he'd be a very welcomed addition, bringing experience and some solid, refined skills to the team.
DeAundre Robinson, the 6-4 sophomore walk-on shooting guard, has gotten bigger physically and, with all the injuries, could actually see some time providing depth early in the season. Robinson is a good athlete, with developing skills, who some thought would be further along by this time. But the word is that he hasn't pushed himself up to this point to make himself into a contributor.
The other walk-ons on the roster are 5-10 freshman point guard Kelvin Kim, 6-2 redshirt freshman shooting guard Joey Ellis, and 5-10 freshman point guard Nican Robinson. Kim is the best among the three, and is probably a low-major player. He has very good skills, plays the point very intelligently, just being limited by his size and lack of athleticism. He is a very good walk-on to have at UCLA, being a very good student, and has a chance down the line to get minutes in a limited back-up role. Ellis is a practice player who is also hurt at this time. Robinson is smallish, with a small frame, and only projects to be a practice player.
Hollins had his first off-season in a couple of years when he was actually able to dedicate time to playing basketball. Last year he was hurt, and the year before he high-jumped for the track team. Putting in the time in the off-season definitely paid off for Hollins, looking the best he ever has this summer and fall.
He still isn't go-to low-post offensive threat, and has never had a good natural feel in the post, but he will at least have some offensive capability this season. He's developed a jump hook, which he can take from within ten feet. He's improved probably the most in his ability to post up and then, when catching the ball in the post, slowing down and knowing what to do. He was notorious for shuffling his feet and traveling when he caught the ball with his back the basket, and he should be better than he was previously. Even if he can't necessarily score whenever he touches the ball, his ability to at least catch the ball with his back to the basket makes defenses have to guard him, and it will potentially open up the rest of the offense. Hollins doesn't have to be a big offensive threat for UCLA this season, just be able to convert the gimmes from within five feet, rebound and defend. If he just does that, he'll definitely improve upon the 4.5 points per game he averaged a season ago.
His rebounding has always been a bit suspect, since he's 230 pounds, but very top heavy. The injury to his knee last year has continued to limit his ability to develop his lower body. So, in terms of rebounding, he isn't great at carving out rebounding space. He had just 3.4 rebounds per game a year ago, but that should definitely improve to the point you can probably expect 6 or so a game, especially since his 16 minutes per game will definitely increase.
Hollins will also see the floor more because he is UCLA's best post defender and shot blocker. He's a quick athlete who, with his height, presents problems for opponents defensively. He makes up for not being really physical with his quickness and ability to get off the floor.
Michael Fey, the 6-11 senior center, started almost every game last season at the five, but had a more or less struggling season, averaging 8.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. He's UCLA best low-post scorer, but that isn't necessarily saying much. While Fey has a good scoring touch around the basket, he's notoriously soft in finishing, many times going up for a soft bank-in rather than flushing it. With his lack of athleticism around the basket, he's been a poor rebounder in his three UCLA seasons.
Fey, though, brings experience, a big body, and low-post skills to the team, which UCLA desperately needs as much of as they can get. While Hollins might beat out Fey to start at the five, Fey is still an integral part to the team's success this season, with some talents that Hollins lacks.
At this point, Fey is still recovering from a groin injury that has kept him out of fall practice. It was thought he could maybe return this week for some light practice, but he's just not coming back from the injury as quickly as was hoped. It's even questionable if he'll be back in time for the Pre-Season NIT, November 19th through the 25th. If he starts practicing next week, which is what UCLA is shooting for, he could very well be ready to play by the NIT. Sometimes groin injuries can be lingering, and UCLA hopes that Fey does in fact return soon. There is a bit of a possibility that he might be hindered by it for sometime, though, and it would be interesting to see if he actually missed the majority of the season because of the injury if he'd redshirt. We're not saying it's likely, but it has to be considered.
6-9 sophomore center Lorenzo Mata is facing a season where he'll be asked to provide solid minutes at the five. He has gotten bigger physically in the off-season, now 235 pounds, and has improved his game overall. Mata's upper body has developed, and his lower body strength was never really a question. He was a liability last year at times because of his lack of knowledge in how to defend the post, and he'll have to do better if he hopes to stay on the floor this season. Offensively, he's much more comfortable scoring in the post, with better back-to-the-basket moves and an improved face-up shot.
Mata's biggest contribution will be his rebounding. He is easily UCLA's best rebounder, and he's shown it in practice so far this fall. This season when Hollins or Fey go into their non-rebounding funk, you might see Howland opt for Mata to provide some boards.
UCLA came into the season with high hopes for the 6-8 freshman post, Alfred Aboya. Aboya is big (235 pounds), strong, tough and mature (he'll turn 21 in January). He plays hard, never stops, and is a hustler. After having seen him in the individual workouts to begin the fall quarter, the staff thought that Aboya would be the starter at the open power forward position.
But with this team, you know he was bound to get injured. Aboya injured a knee, and then had arthroscopic surgery on it October 12th. It was the same knee he had scoped in high school last year. Aboya, if you remember, also had his other knee scoped last summer and was only returning to play when he needed the Octobers surgery.
Aboya started doing some individual workouts and light team workouts this week. But his knee didn't respond well. It's believed that it could still be a couple of weeks before he's completely ready to play and, conservatively, he might miss the Pre-Season NIT himself.
If Aboya gets healthy, he'll more than likely plug into the four spot, left vacant by the departed Dijon Thompson. Aboya isn't exactly the type of four Howland wants, which is one who is skilled and can step out and shoot it to three. Aboya's skills aren't near as develop as that, either facing the basket or with his back to it. But his toughness and ability to rebound was going to win him the position before he was injured. Aboya does pass the ball well out of the post, which is a critical aspect of Howland's concept of the four.
Luc Mbah a Moute, the 6-7 freshman, has been a nice, relative surprise since workouts and practices began. He's a big boy, at 227 pounds, and has shown toughness, resiliency and hard work in practice. Mbah a Moute has only played basketball for a few years, and hasn't yet developed a good feel for the game, but his athletic ability is unique. He is very quick laterally for his size and has good hops. And skills-wise, he's a good ballhandler and passer, but his shot is a work-in-progress. Over his four years at UCLA he'll play the four and the three, but this season could see most of his time at the four, due to the questions at the position. At the four, he presents a tough matchup for defenders, being too quick for bigger fours to stay with. If he can develop a consistent outside shot he would be a considerably tough matchup at the four, the kind Howland wants.
That four position is truly the biggest mystery of the season. UCLA has to try to replace the production it got from Thompson a year ago with a combination of Aboya and Mbah a Moute, two nice athletes that are raw and inexperienced. More than likely, they'll be able to offset Thompson's rebounding production between the two of them, but the scoring will almost certainly have to come from other sources. If the two of them can just provide solid defense at the position and rebound decently it would be considered a win.
Ryan Wright, the 6-8 freshman post, was perhaps the highest rated prospect nationally among the freshmen and, ironically, could end up the least used in his freshman year. It's not that Wright has any less potential than was believed, but he's very raw and very early in his basketball learning curve. He only practiced three times a week with his high school team last year and it has to be a bit of a culture shock and information overlaod coming to UCLA and taking on the "job" of being a player under a demanding coach like Howland.
Wright is a very good athlete, with good hops and the ability to play above the basket. He's gotten quite a bit thicker, even since last spring, up to about 230 now.
His knowledge of the game and his skills are the areas he needs to develop. He doesn't know basketball that well yet, and he is still very raw in his offensive skills. If you need a comparison to make it vivid for you, picture Stanford's Justin Davis from a couple of years ago. Davis was a similar athlete, with the ability to play strong around the basket, with limited skills. Wright might have better offensive potential than Davis did, who never really turned into an offensive player, but that's the type of guy Wright potentially is for UCLA down the line.
If Fey does return, just doing the math it's easy to see that Wright very well might not get the opportunity for much playing time this season – unless of course he comes out in the exhibitions and shows he has to be on the court. But if things go as expected, Wright very well could be a candidate for a redshirt. Even if Fey doesn't return, UCLA could still intend to redshirt Wright, relying on Hollins and Mata as their guys at the five.
It's truly phenomenal to think that UCLA, going into its first exhibition game Friday night, is without the five guys you might have projected as the team's starters just a couple of months ago. I don't think I can remember a comparable occurrence recently in college basketball – a team without its five projected starters sidelined to begin the season because of injury. When considering UCLA's potential for the season, the injuries have become significant enough now that you have to factor them in as possible factor. At this point, you have to wonder when exactly UCLA will be at full strength for the season? December? January? Never?
If UCLA does returns to health on schedule, the starting five for Pac-10 conference play will probably be Farmar, Afflalo, Shipp, Aboya and Hollins.
Coming off the bench primarily will be: Bozeman, Fey, Mbah a Moute, Mata and Roll. After those ten, there isn't much playing time left for Collison and Wright.
Shipp's absence could give a revitalized Bozeman the opportunity to grab hold of the three spot. If so, it gives UCLA a great luxury, and actually a very lucky one, if Shipp doesn't return to 100% this year.
If Aboya can't return to 100%, Mbah a Moute will probably see the most time at the four.
If these scenarios hold true, and UCLA is without a healthy Shipp or Aboya, it severely cuts into UCLA's potential for the season. Throw in possibly Fey not coming back 100% and you have a significant blow to the team's potential for achievement.
With the three sophomores not having to play 34 minutes per game apiece, watch for UCLA to try to push the ball more to get easier baskets in transition and semi-transition. A big portion of UCLA's offense could be in semi-transition, with Shipp, Afflalo, Farmar and Roll spotting up from three before the defense has time to match up.
Expect to see UCLA's offense look and feel far more in sync than it did a season ago. If you remember, there were long dry spells with the offense, that put UCLA in deep holes in various games. UCLA should be better at busting zones, with improved shooting from the three perimeter freshmen and the addition of Roll. With the combined experience of the three sophomores, the offense should function better and smoother.
Offensively, the weakest aspect will be, as it was last year, inside. UCLA doesn't have a great go-to low-post scorer, and its rebounding will still be suspect. As we've said, if the low post guys like Hollins, Fey and Mata can just consistently convert the lay-ups and slams, that should be good enough low-post production. Getting 18-20 rebounds from both post positions will be critical, and even more important than the low-post scoring. Because of this, Mata, since he is the best rebounder on the team, could see solid minutes, especially if he proves not to be a defensive liability. If Hollins shows a newfound decent rebounding ability, expect him to get the majority of the minutes at the five since he is the best low-post defender.
Defensively, UCLA has the potential to be very good. With Bozeman returning, it has two very good on-ball defenders in him and Afflalo. With those two on the court at the same time, it's going to be tough for opponents to get many open looks out of their two and three spots. Farmar's defense was iffy a season ago, and broke down often. But playing less minutes and being stronger should really help. If he can play solid defense, UCLA looks like a very good perimeter defensive team. It still might not get a great deal of steals, since Howland tends to emphasize good positional defense as opposed to taking risks. But UCLA's decent defensive field goal percentage from a season ago (44%) should improve. Inside, UCLA has the potential to also be good defensively. Hollins has always been a good post defender, being able to utilize his athleticism and height, and Fey has been good in matchups that benefit him. With Aboya and Mbah a Moute you're adding two very good, strong, big athletes inside who could have some lapses defensively due to inexperience, but give UCLA so much more defensive depth than they had a year ago. Mata's improved defense will be key to him staying on the court.
If UCLA can just get solid play from its post players – which means nothing more than good rebounding and good defense, and a nominal low-post offensive threat – the expected improvement in play overall on the perimeter will be enough to carry this team to more success than it had a year ago. In college basketball today, you can be quite successful with just serviceable to good post play, combined with very good guard play. The fact that UCLA started three freshmen at its perimeter positions a year ago, and they did fairly well, and learned from their mistakes, leads you to speculate fairly reasonably that they'll make the team quite a bit better this year when they're a year older, bigger, stronger, wiser, more experienced, more rested and more skilled. While you might worry that the loss of Dijon Thompson will be too much to make up, the improved play of Farmar, Afflalo and Shipp from freshmen to sophomores, and the added contribution of Bozeman, while you have the same frontcourt, but a deeper one, should do more than compensate.
Coming Next: An analysis of UCLA's schedule and its opponents...