It's always such a crapshoot when you try to predict how a season will go.
Even so, we were darn close last year, predicting that the 2004-2005 Bruins would get 18 regular season wins and a berth in the NCAA tournament. They did, in actuality, finish with 18 wins and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
While you might look at this schedule and think it's cupcake, it's not as fluffy as you might think. Sure there are the Coppin States and Albanys, and Wagners and Sac States, but Nevada is better than the name implies, as is West Virginia. Michigan on the road should also be a struggle.
So much in this prediction will be based on the health of the UCLA team, and the completely unsubstantiated speculation on when some of the Bruin players will return to the roster, and wild guesses whether they'll be healthy. In other words, the injuries are a huge wild card in the season, as we established in Part 1 of the season preview. If, say, Josh Shipp comes back late and/or doesn't return to top form, that could be worth at least a couple of victories. Say Alfred Aboya never gets 100% healthy - worth maybe a win or two.
While it's said just about every year and doesn't necessarily prove to be true, the Pac-10 could actually be fairly tough this season. You have some elite teams at the top with Arizona and Stanford, then some teams that have a real chance to be very, very good - potentially Sweet 16 teams - in Washington and Cal. Oregon will be quite a bit better than it was a year ago and be a very tough out. Oregon State returns much of the same team it had, and it was a tough out last year (Can you say Pac-10 tournament?). Luckily Arizona State is on its last legs with head coach Rob Evans, USC is rebuilding and Washington State seems to always be rebuilding.
So, here goes. Make sure you save these predictions so you can pull them out and harrass me later:
-- New Mexico State (NIT first round), W, 1-0. Reggie Theus takes over a
struggling program that won 6 games a year ago.
-- Temple (probable NIT second round), W, 2-0. This could be a tough one for UCLA, with the game Nov. 17th and UCLA possibly still without a few players. Temple has one of the best point guards in the country and four starters returning, but we'll give it a win.
-- Delaware State, W, 3-0. Defending MEAC champs, the Hornets have some key guys returning. But it's home at Pauley.
-- Alabama/Memphis (@ NYC, probable NIT third round), L, 3-1. This is where the lingering injuries will catch up with the Bruins. Memphis and Alabama are potential Sweet 16 teams.
-- Princeton/Missouri, (@ NYC, probable NIT consolation). W, 4-1. UCLA would play either of two struggling programs.
-- Albany, W, 5-1. Another name that might fool you into thinking they're not very good, but Albany is picked to win the America East Conference. So, not an easy W here.
-- Coppin State, W, 6-1. Another MEAC team comes to Pauley, this one lost its two best players from a year ago.
-- Nevada, W, 7-1. @ Wooden Classic. But don't just slide this into the win column that quickly. Nevada is the consenus pick to win the WAC and make some noise in the NCAA tournament.
-- @ Michigan. L, 7-2. The Wolverines collapsed last year after UCLA beat them, but with the Bruins probably still not at full strength and on the road, this is a likely one to pick for a loss.
-- Wagner, W, 8-2. Another game that might prove to be tougher than it looks. The Seahawks return most of the team that advanced to its conference finals.
-- Sacramento State, W, 9-2. Better than you might think, but should still be a middling Big Sky team.
-- Stanford, L, 9-3. Against a potential Final Four team to start the Pac-10, potentially without all of your horses.
-- California, W, 10-3. Have to give the games with Cal a split, with the return of Leon Powe.
-- @ Arizona, L, 10-4. Hopefully Josh Shipp is rounding into shape by January 5th, and Alfred Aboya has found his way. If not, it could be a little scary. Arizona is loaded.
-- @ Arizona State, W, 11-4. Thank the lord Ike Diogu is gone.
-- Washington State, W, 12-4. The Cougars will be improved, but still don't have the talent.
-- Washington, W, 13-4. We're going to give the UCLA/UW series a split.
-- USC, W, 14-4. SC won't be as bad as you might think since they still have two of the best guards in the conference.
-- West Virginia, W, 15-4. It's late January, and if UCLA has its team healthy and having played together for a month, they should beat a West Virginia team that could be very good.
-- @ Oregon, L, 15-5. We'll give the Bruins a split in the state of Oregon.
-- @ Oregon State, W, 16-5. This very well could be the game they lose, though.
-- Arizona State, W, 17-5. Again, Thank the lord for the Sun Devils.
-- Arizona, L, 17-6. Think it's a year UCLA takes it on the chin from the Wildcats.
-- @ Washington State, W, 18-6. Still a very tough game every year in Pullman.
-- @ Washington, L, 18-7. The other end of the split.
-- @ USC, W, 19-7. The Trojans should be better by this time.
-- Oregon State, L, 19-8. We're going with a complete split with the Oregon schools.
-- Oregon, W, 20-8. Oregon could be putting it together by this time.
-- @ California. L, 20-9. Do you remember how Powe dismantled the Bruins in Berkeley his freshman year?
-- @ Stanford, L, 21-9.
a great way to end the season and go into the Pac-10 tournament, 5-6 in their
last 11 games. It wouldn't look great to the NCAA Tournament Committee
Pac-10 Tournament: A 10-8 Pac-10 season could still get UCLA a top four seed in the conference tournament, since you can probably bet that the Pac-10 will beat up each other pretty good in conference play. A #4 seed or better gets them a fairly good matchup in the first round, so chalk up at least one win in the conference tournament. It will be interesting to see how good UCLA is, if they're healthy at this time, though, with the three sophomores much more rested than they were a year ago because of improved individual strength and team depth.
Predicted Finish in the Pac-10 regular season:
There used to be a time I'd pick a Stanford team that wasn't as good on paper over a more talented Arizona team, but without Mike Montgomery coaching Stanford it just isn't as probable. Not that Trent Johnson isn't a good coach, but that Montgomery seemed to work wonders with less every year. Arizona is just too deep and talented, and its point guard, Mustafa Shakur, you'd expect to be much better as an experienced junior.
So, UCLA comes out of the Pac-10 tournament 22-10, they probably have a fair RPI, since the Pac-10 will be strong, and they probably get around a six seed.
The big game is Arizona at Pauley. It's not a stretch to think that UCLA will actually beat Arizona or Stanford once in four games. And you'd have to think a win for the Bruins would be more likely at home. But it's tough to conceive UCLA beating Stanford in Pauley the first game of the Pac-10 conference schedule on December 29th, with UCLA possibly still not at full strength. So, all indicators point toward the game against Arizona in Pauley February 4th. If UCLA can get that win, it would be a victory that would probably significantly improve their RPI and improve their NCAA tournament seeding.
With either scenario, a win or a loss against Arizona at home, UCLA will have
a very good chance of winning at least two games in the NCAA tournament and
making the Sweet 16. So much, though, depends on UCLA's health throughout
the season, particularly if Josh Shipp and Alred Aboya are close to 100%
physically. If they and Michael Fey are healthy, UCLA could be very,
very good come March.