That's a huge precedent to have to live up to this time around.
We also said they'd win the Pac-10 and then get knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the Elite Eight.
The line of reasoning was, as we stated in the Season Preview, Part 1, luck is against you in going to the Final Four. Even if UCLA is one of the top four teams in the country this year, the odds of them making the Final Four are less than 50%. It's not that difficult to assert that UCLA could be one of the top four teams in the country, but it's another thing to predict they're going to make the Final Four.
But that's what we're going to do. Now, please note there is a distinction between having expectations for them to reach the Final Four and predicting they'll make the Final Four. When you carry those expectations, anything less is disappointing. Predicting they'll make the Final Four doesn't mean we'd be disappointed in UCLA this year if they didn't make the Final Four. We'd be disappointed if they weren't one of the top four teams in the country, yes, and didn't get a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But there is too much luck in determining whether a team makes the Final Four to expect it.
But we'll predict UCLA will have enough talent – and enough luck – to make the Final Four.
Every year we go through the entire schedule and predict a game-by-game result. This year, we've decided not to do that since it's just too tough to predict what state the team will be in – and the state of their opponent – in late February, for instance.
But we will provide a general feel for the season, the team's schedule and its opponents.
Looking at the non-conference schedule, it's easy to break down UCLA's opponents into two categories.
The cupcakes and the real games.
Among the eight cupcakes, Weber State, Howland's alma mater, might be the toughest game, since the Wildcats are picked to win the Big Sky conference. UCLA would face them in the CBE preliminary final at Pauley Pavilion November 13th.
But there is Portland State, Youngstown State, Yale, Idaho State, Western Illinois, UC Davis and George Washington, which is in a rebuilding year.
It's not even arrogant to suggest that you use a pen to write down 8-0 against these opponents. Then there are the non-cupcakes, which include the CBE Semi-Final and, hopefully, the CBE Final in Kansas City, Mo. November 19th and 20th; Texas at Pauley Dec. 2nd; Davidson in the Wooden Classic Dec. 8th; and the game at Michigan December 22nd.
The CBE Semi-Final should be Maryland, which should finish in the top half of the ACC this year, and the CBE Final should be against Michigan State, which is a pre-season #8 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' Poll.
While many are citing that UCLA's non-conference schedule isn't very tough, talking about the cupcakes, there are enough formidable opponents – and potential opponents – to make it fairly challenging for the Bruins to get through it undefeated. If UCLA does, in fact, make it to the CBE Final, you could say it's a tougher non-conference schedule than last year.
It's very possible that UCLA makes it through unscathed; it's also possible that it drops one. With its freshman post, Kevin Love, still getting his college feet wet, it's not hard to fathom UCLA dropping a game early against a good opponent like Michigan State, Texas (pre-season #16), or Davidson, which is a probable NCAA Tournament team. Michigan is rebuilding under a new coach, John Beilein, who is responsible for two of UCLA's 13 losses (coaching West Virginia) in the last two years.
We're going with a non-conference record of 12-1.
The conference race, which begins January 3rd for UCLA with a Bay Area Trip, then, should be wild. It's easily the best the Pac-10 has been in the ten years we've been publishing BRO, and the best we can remember. There are six Pac-10 teams in the pre-season USA Today/ESPN Poll, and probably a couple of more that deserve it. The Pac-10 should get 7 teams in the NCAA tournament, and could get 8 if it didn't play each other twice and, thus, beat up on each other.
UCLA won the conference last season with only three non-conference losses, but it doesn't seem likely this season. Playing the odds, there are just too many tougher conference games this season, especially on the road. It's entirely reasonable to expect the conference champion to have four or more losses this season, and that very convoluted conference tie-breaker formula very well might be instrumental in determining the conference winner.
UCLA will have more tough road games in the conference. It lost last year at Oregon, at Stanford and at Washington. It's completely reasonable to expect UCLA to lose at least three road games this season among those same games this year, along with games at Washington State, Arizona and USC. With how much tougher the conference is, we'll predict UCLA loses four road games in the conference this year. UCLA always needs a wake-up loss on the road late in the season, and we're pegging the game at Arizona March 2nd as the one that works as an alarm clock this season.
In the last two seasons, though, Ben Howland has only lost one conference game at home, and only four in the last three seasons. We'll go with an undefeated record at home in conference.
That makes UCLA 26-5 overall for the season, and 14-4 in the conference. Those four conference losses are good enough to get UCLA its third consecutive regular season Pac-10 championship.
Predicted Finish in the Pac-10:
Washington State is generally being picked to finish second in the Pac-10 in most pre-season predictions, but we think they caught many by surprise last year and won't be able to do it as effectively this year. Oregon is talented and experienced enough to overcome having to replace Aaron Brooks. Arizona will immediately benefit from the addition of Kevin O'Neill to its coaching staff, making them more disciplined, which is what they've sorely needed. USC is going to be very talented, but be limited somewhat by chemistry issues. Stanford will have issues with Brook Lopez, who has been suspended from the team indefinitely. Washington will be better than it was a year ago, with a core group back from a disappointing year but with more experience. California gets back one of the best centers in the conference and has a very formidable frontline but will be lacking in the backcourt. Arizona State is the team we pick as the dark horse in the conference; Herb Sendek is a good coach, has them on the right track and now has one of the most talented shooting guards in the conference. You have to feel sorry for Oregon State, which isn't very good to begin with, and it happened to time its re-building year to coincide with the strongest year for the Pac-10 in decades.
When it comes to the Pac-10 conference tournament, by that time of the season, you can expect UCLA to have its serious game face on, and Love practically with the experience of a sophomore. Expect UCLA to be careful not to slip up like it did last season, and be already in tournament mode when it goes through the Pac-10 tournament and wins it.
Whoever wins the Pac-10 this season can almost certainly expect a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
So, the Bruins probably have a #1 seed, but not a #1 ranking heading into the tournament. The Pac-10 is too treacherous this year for the Bruins to get through it and come out with a record worthy of a #1 ranking. But with its strength of schedule, having played its strong Pac-10 opponents twice, it isn't a stretch that UCLA could get the #1 seed overall in the Tournament.
The rest of the country isn't near as talented as it's been the last several years. It's especially wide open now that Florida's talent has dispersed, and there isn't really anyone who is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field like the Gators were. It's just the end of October, so it's hard to project, but North Carolina looks like the most formidable contender out there, and the Tar Heels aren't Florida-esque. The next tier of teams, which includes the likes of, say, Memphis, Louisville, and Kansas, are programs that are fairly inconsistent and, actually, not as talented as the Bruins.
In the last two years, UCLA made the Final Four with a team that you thought wasn't as talented as many others in the nation, and certainly not as talented as the others in the Final Four. This year, UCLA looks just as talented as anyone else.
In other words, it's impeccable timing that, in a year when the rest of the nation doesn't look as loaded, UCLA has put together its most talented and balanced team in the last 12 years.
We're not expecting UCLA to win a national championship, because that would be foolish.
But we're predicting one.
It's the Year of Banner Twelve.