Hoops Season Preview

With so many unknowns, perhaps the only thing predictable about this season is probably that it will be unpredictable. The team has a great deal of youth and potential. Here are some keys to the team, and a prediction at the schedule results...

Trying to predict what will happen during the 2002-2003 UCLA basketball season is probably a very foolish endeavor. If there's one thing that UCLA basketball fans know about the program in recent years, it's been fairly unpredictable game by game. There have been games that you would anticipate UCLA should easily win in the last several years that they haven't. Then there have been games – such as the win over Kansas and Cincinnati last year – when the team played to an unexpected higher level. Both those highs and lows were very hard to predict.

But if you think that the most recent years have been a bit topsy-turvy, buckle your seats because this season looks to be even more unpredictable.

Here are the factors contributing to the potential roller coaster ride:

-- Unknown and unproven personnel on the team.

-- A fairly young team, which is usually prone to mistakes and missteps.

-- A schedule filled with both powder puffs and elite teams, which provides the opportunity for upsets – on both sides of the equation. The non-conference schedule looks like a script for UCLA to, say, potentially be upset by underdog San Diego in its first game but then potentially upset Duke in its next game.

-- A different look to the Pac-10 this year. It's without as many good teams at the top of the conference, but with an improved second tier of teams.

THE TEAM OF MYSTERY

The team itself this year is probably the most mysterious and thus, hard to predict, than any in recent years. Three long-time veteran starters, Dan Gadzuric, Matt Barnes and Billy Knight, graduated. That leaves a big, gaping hole of the unknown. Truly the only real certain element of the team is senior swingman Jason Kapono. Other than that, there isn't much to go on when it comes to analyzing and predicting every other player and element of this team.

Because there are so many unknown elements, this team could have a season that ranges anywhere from a 22-win regular season, to possibly even a losing regular season record.

To try to predict where the season will fall in that range, you have to go out on a limb, and use a huge amount of speculation on many issues concerning the team that are as of yet unknown.

So, here we go...

As stated above, Jason Kapono is truly the one known commodity. It's not a stretch to believe that this season he'll be everything he's been for the last three years. In three years he's averaged 16.4 points a game and has been the team's leading scorer. He'll also be stepping into a new role for him, that of team leadership. It's also his "money year," meaning, his last hurrah at showing the NBA his pro worth. It's easy to project that Kapono will be the lights-out shooter he's been, but it's also not hard to believe that he has continued to improve his game and should look improved in other aspects of his game than shooting – such as posting up smaller defenders, ballhandling, and creating his own shot. Kapono doesn't have the athleticism to expect a drastic improvement in his one-on-one abilities, but in workouts during the summer there were signs of incremental improvements in being able to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot, especially around the basket.

But after Kapono, it's a mystery.

More than likely the starting lineup will consist of this:

Cedric Bozeman, 6-6 SO G
Ray Young, SR, 6-4 SR G
Dijon Thompson, 6-7 SO F
Jason Kapono, 6-7 SR F
T.J. Cummings, 6-9 JR F/C

The biggest contributors off the bench look to be:

Jon Crispin, 6-0 JR G
Ryan Walcott 6-0 SO G
Ryan Hollins, 6-11 FR C
Michael Fey, 6-11 FR C
Andre Patterson, 6-6 SO F*

(Obviously, we all know what the asterisk signifies for Patterson. He's currently attending classes at Santa Monica City College, trying to reclaim academic eligibility. If he does so, it's expected he'll be eligible to play by the fourth or fifth game of the season).

Others on the bench:

Josiah Johnson, 6-7 SO F
John Hoffart, 6-9 JR C
Marcedes Lewis, 6-6 FR F
Matt McKinney, 6-8 FR F

ON OFFENSE

In looking at the starting five, and even going seven or so deep into the roster, the strength of the team is shooting. Kapono is one of the best shooters in college basketball, if not the best. Perhaps the second best shooter on the team is Crispin, who's about as automatic as Billy Knight, but has a better, quicker release. Ray Young, despite being labeled as a poor shooter, has improved his jumpshot considerably. Cummings is one of the best-shooting 6-9 players around. Cedric Bozeman and Dijon Thompson have both improved their outside jumpshots over the summer. Ryan Walcott is a good-shooting backup point guard. Even Ryan Hollins has a very pretty outside jumper.

The weakness of the team is clearly an inside presence, both in scoring and rebounding. Cummings, while being a very good spot-up shooter from 10 feet and out, isn't comfortable around the basket. His back-to-the-basket game has improved, and he's developed a better jump hook, but he naturally doesn't play in the paint. He won't look to post up near as much as he'll float out to about 15 on the baseline and look for a shot, or catch the ball with his back to the basket and get off a fadeaway 15-foot jumper. Hollins and Fey, even Hoffart, will be given a chance to establish themselves as the inside presence the team needs, but it's probably asking too much of each of them. Hollins probably has the most long-term potential, being an eye-opening athlete with incredible hops. But he probably weighs 200 pounds, has incredibly skinny legs, and is very raw in the post. Fey is more of a traditional type of center, but he too is raw and early in his development in the post. Both show flashes, but it's too much to expect more than just some serviceable duty from them offensively in the paint.

The team doesn't have great quickness or great one-on-one players that are able to break down defenders. Bozeman has improved in this aspect of the game, but it's still the weakness of his and Thompson's games. Walcott perhaps has the ability to break down a defender, but the results are inconsistent. For every good penetration and good dish, there's an out-of-control penetration and bad dish.

Therefore you can see how the offense will be very perimeter oriented. The team will more or less abandon the 1-4 offense its run quite a bit in recent years and adopt more of the motion offense. This is a good move in relation to the team's personnel. The 1-4 is designed to get the ball inside to strong on-the-block players, which this team lacks. The motion is better at getting jump shooters open on the perimeter. It also will allow naturally gifted players like Bozeman and Thompson to open up their games and create opportunities for themselves and the team. Expect Bozeman to be able to see the court better in this offense and be a better passer. With his height, he has passing angles other point guards don't. He should be very good at finding the open shooter, but also good at penetrating just enough to draw defenders, and then dishing to the open man.

UCLA should try to get as many of its players open looks on the perimeter as it can, in many different situations. Kapono is perhaps the most deadly in semi-transition, when the defense is still just matching up and he comes up the court, catches and shoots before a defender can find him. This could be one of UCLA's best offensive weapons, using a semi-speed game to bring the ball up the court and find its shooters like Kapono, Crispin and Young open before defenders can find them. In fact, UCLA should try to push the ball this year as much as possible; maybe not always forcing a break, but pushing it enough to where it can get a lot of offense out of its outside shooting in semi-transition. In the half-court, without any considerable scoring threat inside, you would suppose that most defenses will extend outside to get bodies on UCLA's shooters. Running the motion precisely, to get its shooters open, is key. You would think that UCLA shouldn't see too many zone defenses with a lack of an inside scoring threat.

Cummings is perhaps a huge key in the offense. If he can give UCLA some threat of an inside scoring threat, it opens up space for the Bruins' outside shooters to find open looks. Also, with a perimeter-oriented offense, offensive rebounding looks to be a little spotty. Cummings could be UCLA's primary offensive rebounding force for most of the minutes on the court. Hollins, who uses his hops effectively to rebound, might provide some second chances. If Patterson does return, he could be perhaps the biggest factor on the team next to Kapono. Even though he's only 6-6, he's so explosive off the floor and has such long arms, he plays 6-9. He has the most potential to be UCLA's scoring threat inside, with a repertoire of natural inside scoring moves and a great rebounding ability.

If UCLA can't find some good production inside in scoring and rebounding on the offensive boards from Cummings, Hollins or even Fey, so much of its offensive success will depend on its outside shooting. So, with a team that lives or dies probably by the outside shot, you can probably expect some games where UCLA smokes its competition because it has the hot shooting hand – along with some games where there are some dry shooting spells and UCLA struggles offensively.

ON DEFENSE

UCLA mostly has guys in the 6-6 to 6-8 range that aren't extremely quick, but have long arms. When you have a lot of those guys on the court at one time, the defensive possibilities are a little limited. While many believe that UCLA shouldn't press with a team like this, they possibly should. But we'll get back to that in a minute.

In the half-court, without many frontcourt players that will be able to really contribute major minutes, UCLA will have to protect Cummings from foul trouble. You can also probably expect the young Hollins and Fey to be giving out fouls by the minute almost. So it makes sense that UCLA, in the half-court, might zone quite a bit. It has the big, long players to do it. Those arms take up a lot of space and it masks the weakness of defensive quickness. It also protects your inside people from foul trouble.

If Cummings gets in foul trouble and Hollins/Fey/Hoffart can't shoulder the load well enough, UCLA will be hurting in its half-court defense. Any team with any kind of frontcourt scorer will eat them up. UCLA will be forced to put 215-lb. Kapono or 195-lb. Thompson on a center, which could get ugly.

Given all this, it might really behoove UCLA to press. While we know that UCLA might not have the quickness to press, it does help you with a few things. For one, it keeps the opposing team out of their halfcourt offense as much, which helps to protect Cummings and UCLA's frontcourt players from foul trouble. It also turns the game into a transition game, which, as stated above, could really benefit UCLA offensively. The return of Ray Young and his defensive abilities could really aid the team in pressing this year. Crispin should also help defensively with guards this year. He's not quick and he's a bit stiff, but he looks to be better defensively than Billy Knight.

SOMEONE HAS TO STEP UP

It's pretty clear that one or a few players will have to step up and play beyond expectation this year for UCLA to have a successful season. The best candidates to fulfill this role would be Bozeman and Thompson. It would be a matter of one or both of them having more than just "solid" sophomore campaigns. One of both might have to step up and be a star on this team. They definitely have the talent – and the opportunity – to do it.

It would also be very beneficial to the team if someone like Hollins stepped up and could provide some significant, solid minutes on the frontline, something like 20-25 minutes of relatively error-free solid play, where he averaged 6 rebounds a game, could guard the opposing team's center and stay out of foul trouble. If Cummings could step up to be more of an inside player on both the offensive and defensive side of the court, that could do it in itself. Unexpected contributions from Hoffart, Matt McKinney or even Marcedes Lewis would also go a long way.

THE SCHEDULE

UCLA's non-conference schedule features two of the toughest programs in the country, but then, after that, it isn't that tough. Kansas looks to have one of the best teams in the country and UCLA faces the Jayhawks for the sixth game of the season. Duke, which is down a bit for Duke, is still considered a top ten national team and the Bruins get the Blue Devils the second game of the season. Both of those games are on the road (Duke is at the Wooden Classic in Indianapolis, Ind.)

After those two, UCLA has its powder puffs in Portland, Northern Arizona, and Long Beach State, and relative powder puff in San Diego. It also faces St. John's and Michigan, which are more frightening by name than by team this year. UCLA does face Georgetown on the road, which will be a tough game.

The Pac-10 this season will probably not be as good as it was last year at the top of the conference, but the quality at the bottom of the conference will be improved. After Arizona, there aren't really any clear-cut elite teams. Oregon should be pretty good, and might end up being as good as they were last year (if you remember, they were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-10 last year and then won the conference), but that might be expecting too much. Stanford, Cal and USC shouldn't be as good as they were a year ago. But Arizona State, Washington and Oregon State will all be improved.

What does this mean for UCLA in the Pac-10? While UCLA might have a better chance at knocking off what traditionally are the teams in the higher half of the conference, it's going to be harder to put away the lower half of the conference. This also means that road trips will be a bitch. While Stanford, Cal and USC are always tough on the road, Arizona State, Washington and Oregon State are going to be even tougher this year than last.

Again, it looks like it's another factor that should make this season even more topsy-turvy than it has been in recent years.

PREDICTION

So, we conceded that this is an incredibly difficult season to predict, given all of the varying factors. We predicted that, if anything, it's probably youre safest best to anticipate a roller coaster of a season.

So, why would be foolish enough to actually predict the season game-by-game? That's what we're here for.

Nov. 26th, San Diego. W, 1-0. San Diego plays a well-disciplined game and UCLA will probably struggle but eke out the win.

Nov. 30th, Duke (at Wooden Classic). L, 1-1. A young UCLA team, on the road, against Duke isn't a good recipe. But if UCLA loses to San Diego, watch the Bruins come back and beat Duke here.

Dec. 8th, Long Beach State, W. 2-1. Long Beach State has a new, good coaching staff in place, but being new, with average personnel, there's little chance for an upset.

Dec. 14th. Portland, W, 3-1. Coach Michael Holton returns to Pauley Pavilion. But he won't have enough fire power.

Dec. 17th, Northern Arizona. W, 4-1. The Lumberjacks might put up a fight for a half, but they won't be able to keep up.

Dec. 21st, at Kansas, L, 4-2. The thought of this game makes you frightened. The pre-season #2 team in the country – and they have a strong frontline with potential All-American Nick Collison and beast Wayne Simien?

Dec. 28th, Michigan. W, 5-2. The bounce-back Bruins probably play their best game of the non-conference schedule after getting beat by Kansas against a rebuilding Michigan team at Pauley.

Jan. 2nd, at Washington, W, 6-2. A very tough game on the road. UCLA probably struggles for most of the game but comes back and gets the win. UCLA barely eked out a win last year in Seattle, with an experience squad. UCLA will be bringing a young team to face an improved Husky team. But we'll still give the Bruins the win here.

Jan. 4th, at Washington State, W, 7-2. UCLA has only swept the Washington schools on the road two times since Steve Lavin has been the coach. But this will be the third.

Jan. 8th, USC, W, 8-2. USC, a young team itself, is still going through growing pains by early January and UCLA gets the win at home.

Jan. 11th, St. John's. W, 9-2. UCLA probably sneaks by with a win against a St. John's team that isn't that good.

Jan. 16th, Arizona State. W, 10-2. One of the pivotal games of the season. Arizona State, at this point, could be emerging as one of the better teams in the Pac-10. But we'll give the Bruins the win at home.

Jan. 18th, Arizona. L, 10-3. Hard to give UCLA a win against this Arizona team, even at Pauley.

Jan. 23rd, at Stanford. W, 11-3. It's been the best play on Earth for UCLA to play in recent years. It would be typical that, the year Stanford is down, they beat the Bruins at home. But let's go with the recent trend.

Jan. 25th, at Cal. L, 11-4. A split in the Bay Area is reasonable, and UCLA has struggled at Cal recently.

Jan. 30th, Oregon. L, 11-5. The Bruins usually lose a conference game at home to one of the better teams in the conference, and this looks like the one.

Feb. 1st, Oregon State. W, 12-5. The Beavers could be one of the surprises in the Pac-10 this year, with the best, veteran frontcourt this side of Arizona. UCLA gets the win at home.

Feb. 5th. at USC. L, 12-6. It's probably a good bet that UCLA and USC split this year, holding serve at their home arenas. But this begins UCLA's toughest stretch in their schedule.

Feb. 8th, at Georgetown. L, 12-7. A team that UCLA played close last season at Pauley, and they return most of their big guns. At Georgetown, have to give the Hoyas the win.

Feb. 13th, at Arizona. L, 12-8. No explanation.

Feb. 15th, at Arizona State. W, 13-8. UCLA has lost a game to ASU two of the last four years. With ASU most likely very improved, this is one UCLA could drop on the road, but we'll be positive and give them a win.

Feb. 20th, Cal. W, 14-8. The Bruins split with the Bears and get the win at home.

Feb. 22nd, Stanford, W. 15-8. UCLA beats Stanford at home for the first time in six years.

Feb. 27th, at Oregon State. W, 16-8. With OSU vastly improved, UCLA gets a big win on the road.

Mar. 1st, at Oregon. L, 16-9. Playing Luke (Ridnour) and Luke (Jackson) at home is too much for a young Bruin team.

Mar. 6th, Washington State. W, 17-9. At home, UCLA is pretty easy pick against Cougars.

Mar. 8th, Washington. W, 18-9. UCLA completes its third sweep of the Washington schools in seven years.

This gets them a Pac-10 record of 12-6 and more than likely third or fourth in the Pac-10 (Last year, they tied at 11-7 and, through a tie-breaker, ended up sixth).

Mar. 13-15th, Pac-10 Tournament. First-round win, second-round loss. 19-10.

With a high RPI and a highly-ranked schedule, UCLA easily qualifies for the NCAA tournament. Last season they were 19-11 and received an 8 seed, so at 19-10 and probably a third or fourth place finish in the Pac-10, they receive a 7 seed. In the first round against a 10-seed, UCLA wins. They then lose in the second round, against a 2-seed.

Season record 20-11.


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