In Howland's last three seasons, expectations have definitely increased. Last season, after two successive Final Fours, with the addition of Kevin Love, expectations peaked. Many, including us here at Bruin Report Online, had pretty lofty expectations, even foreseeing a national championship.
The fact that UCLA didn't win the Natty had some calling the 2007-2008 season a disappointment. But the majority of Bruin fans, while disappointed that UCLA had gone to three consecutive Final Fours and didn't have a banner to show for it, still considered the season a clear success.
Again, it goes against that commonly repeated and antiquated theory by national college basketball pundits that UCLA fans aren't satisfied unless they win national championships. It's just plainly not true, and it gets tiresome to hear the Dick Vitales of the world drone on about it every season.
Just because UCLA only hangs national championship banners in Pauley Pavilion doesn't mean that fans expect no less. It merely reflects the fact that if UCLA actually did hang Final Four and Pac-10 championship banners from the Pauley rafters, many fans couldn't see the court. It's a reflection of excellence, not of unreasonable expectation.
Is it that UCLA fans have evolved? Have they matured? Have they learned a lesson from seven humbling years under Steve Lavin? Could it be UCLA fans are just grateful right now to have one national power in football or basketball?
Probably. All of those. But no matter the reason, Bruin fans, for the most part, are now easily among the best fans in college basketball. Most are grateful that Ben Howland has taken the Bruins to three Final Fours, and to just be in the conversation every year when Final Fours and National Championships are discussed.
This year will be a test of that support. This season is the first in Howland's career at UCLA where the team might not be better than it was the year before. The team definitely doesn't have all the components it did last season – obviously, since it lost the #4 and #5 picks and a second-round pick to the NBA draft.
And even though Howland has chided us here at BRO when we've predicted elite success and raised expectations (he's very typical in that respect; all coaches want to lower expectations), we're going to do it again:
We expect UCLA to go beyond expectations for the 2008-2009 season. Most reasonable expectations would project the Bruins to a Sweet 16 or even an Elite Eight finish. But we're going to go beyond the reasonable, and project UCLA to at the least make the Elite Eight – and possibly go to its fourth Final Four in a row.
How can I say that? Didn't I just say that UCLA lost two Lottery picks? Don't they have some considerable holes to fill, particularly those in the front court?
Sure. But if you look around college basketball, and the general lack of talent and pervasive mediocrity, combined with an understanding of what it takes to win in the college game, it really isn't much of a stretch.
Howland ain't going to be happy with us.
Here's a rundown on why UCLA has a very good shot of returning to the Final Four for the fourth-straight year.
GUARDS AND WINGS
The most common explanation of what it takes to win in college basketball is good guard play. It's very well accepted that good guard play will take you far, and it will mask many other insufficiencies.
It's getting more and more true, too, because there are less and less bigs that truly can make an impact in college basketball. There just aren't many Kevin Loves walking through the doors of too many programs these days.
More programs are "going small," playing bigger wing types at the four, and more typical fours at the five. It's not just based on an idea to create a mismatch, but mostly due to a lack of talented bigs in the world.
The formula now is to load up on talent in your backcourt, and get some serviceable big men to play defense and rebound. It might not win you a national championship, but it very well could give you a chance.
It's a formula that UCLA applied in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, and it worked. UCLA had exceptional backcourt play, and serviceable bigs.
Last year was probably an aberration. Well, to be more accurate, Kevin Love is an aberration. Don't expect UCLA to look like the Bruins of 2007-2008 much, almost ever. Just about every year you should expect them to look more like the Bruins of 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, with an occasional dabbling into 2007-2008.
This year, UCLA will return to that formula and it will do it with perhaps its most talented and deepest backcourt ever under Howland.
UCLA has one of the best guards in the country in Darren Collison. He might not be one of the best pure point guards, but he's one of the best all-around guards. Sure, he has great quickness and can break down almost every D-1 guard in the nation. But what really puts him among the elite is his shooting ability; in the last two years he's shot 48% from three and 52% last season. His added muscle should help him be able to defend bigger guards, which was the primary issue with him as an NBA prospect when he was considering jumping to the League last spring. Collison isn't a natural point guard (which will lend itself better to the NBA than it does to college), sometimes not having the natural instinct for it and being a beat slow in finding his open shooters. But add in another year of experience, and Collison knowing this is his "money" year, you can expect him to have the urgency that he lacked at times last season. He'll merely be too talented and too savvy for the vast majority of guards he'll face this season.
Last season, Howland utilized Russell Westbrook occasionally to run the offense, to free up Collison and his shooting ability. This season, you might expect Collison to be off the ball even more since he has some guards around him now that bring some considerable point guard skills to the floor.
We've spoken enough about the considerable talent of Jrue Holiday, but his ability to handle the ball and run an offense could impact this year's Bruin team more than just about any of his talents. If he can essentially turn Collison into a shooting guard, you then have a much smaller defender, the one on Collison, having to push through screens to get to him as he's spotting up. We're not saying that Holiday is going to be the point guard, but it wouldn't surprise us if he did set up Collison quite a bit.
Throw in Mike Roll, who is a great passer, and you can expect this team to be one of the best passing Bruin teams in recent memory. Passing is contagious, and you have guys on this team who really enjoy doing it.
Collison might find himself the recipient of more great assists than those he'll dish out.
UCLA has a luxury in the backcourt this year. It has Collison and Josh Shipp returning as the veterans. Shipp, no matter how much you can criticize parts of his game, will still probably lead UCLA in scoring this season. We've heard from some sources close to the program that, with more options in the backcourt, there is a feeling that Shipp will feel less pressure and be able to play looser, more like he did as a freshmen when he scored through his cleverness, rather than last season when he was more or less the designated shooter. The theory is that Shipp will shoot better when he's not expected to, and when others are. His improved body will help keep him focused as he tires, which was an issue last season.
Then there's Holiday. As we've written, take a long look at him in that Bruin uniform because you're not going to see it for long. We've talked for years about his talent, and it seems monotonous to repeat it here again. Suffice it to say that Holiday can do just about anything he wants on the court at anytime. Shoot, drive, score, and make a steal. And do it in a spectacular way. What will be truly the only issue with Holiday is whether he feels comfortable enough playing with seniors like Collison and Shipp to assert himself and take over games like he's capable of. Something to watch for this season is definitely the dynamics between the three. There were issues last season between Love and Shipp/Collison. Holiday seems like he's far more likely to insert himself into a lead role on the team without Shipp and Collison resenting it.
Critical to UCLA's success this year is Mike Roll. He was sorely missed last year, and his absence almost certainly contributed to the burden Shipp felt as a shooter. Roll is now that designated guy. He's in the best shape of his life and he emerged from the pre-season practices as the best shooter on the team. We fully expect Roll to fulfill his "role" as the shooting boost off the bench.
Now, if UCLA had just had four perimeter players it very well might have made a big different a season ago. But this year, UCLA adds two more freshmen who are fully capable of making a big impact.
Jerime Anderson is the best pure point guard on the team, no question. He has a great sense of the game, is a very good passer and knows where his shooters are or should be. Like any great point guard, he sees the play developing before it does. These types of point guard skills have been missing from UCLA for a while, and Anderson will provide them off the bench for probably 15 minutes a game. He's also a very good defender, with a knack for getting his long arms into passing lanes. His shooting is his deficit at this point, and he knows that, so expect him not to take too many looks at the basket this season but be content with finding the guys with a pass who can knock down the shots.
Perhaps one of the biggest elements that could tip UCLA over into truly elite this season might be the play of Malcolm Lee. Lee is phenomenally talented, with amazing quickness for his 6-4 frame, with very good skills and a good shooting ability. He's easily among the top three or four shooters on the team. Right now he's limited by his penchant for playing out of control at times, and whether his still skinny body will be able to stay in front of 215-pound opposing wings. In the last two seasons, Howland has stuck with Shipp and rode him. Last season he didn't have much of a choice since Roll was out. But in 2006-2007, Howland chose to limit the play of Russell Westbrook for Shipp. Hindsight is, of course, 20-20, but there is a great deal of speculation, a big "what if," about whether Howland had chosen to play Westbrook far more early in that season, taken the lumps, what Westbrook might have been by NCAA tournament time. It's not exactly the same situation but it very well could be similar with Lee this season. The similarities between Lee and Westbrook are significant – both are very quick, with some point guard skills, while Lee is a better outside shooter and Westbrook had a better mid-range game at the same stage. But the issue of playing Lee early in the season and taking the requisite lumps as a result to benefit from the experience he'll gain by the end of the season is very similar. If Howland has Lee, who, say, could be a Russell Westbrook type, ready to spell Shipp late in the season, it could make truly make the difference. Plus, there are always injuries, and a well-prepared Lee could compensate.
In 2006-2007, he had Afflalo as a junior, Shipp, Collison and Roll, and Westbrook as a freshman. Last season, he got through with Collison, Westbrook and Shipp. This season he'll have seniors Collison and Shipp, junior Roll, and freshmen Holiday, Anderson and Lee. Holiday is more talented than anyone on this list – including Westbrook, Farmar or Afflalo; Collison, Shipp and Roll should be the best they've ever been; and then throw in Anderson and Lee.
It's fitting to make the comparison to the 2006-2007 season. In that year, UCLA had in its frontcourt Lorenzo Mata, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright.
This season, you'd have to say that UCLA's frontcourt is at least comparable, if not better – or at least potentially better.
Aboya is Aboya. While much has been made that he's improved, and that he'll play under control and not get into foul trouble, we're skeptical. Aboya is kind of a force of nature that can't be contained – or refined. He is what he is, and that will be a guy who gives you 15-20 minutes per game, comes in and plays until he's exhausted, beats up the opposing post players, and gives out fouls like candy.
It's not really fair, but because James Keefe does have the capability to develop, we place the burden and pressure on him to step up and be better this season. Keefe is not going to be an All-American, but he's very capable of giving you the numbers that Mbah a Moute did over the last two seasons, which is 8.4 points and 6.7 points per game. If Keefe can be a de facto Luc, it will be key to UCLA's success. Again, like with Luc, UCLA doesn't need Keefe to be a big scoring option, but just rebound, defend and not make mistakes.
The wild card is UCLA's freshmen.
Here's another measuring stick from the 2006-2007 season: Lorenzo Mata, in that year, played 36 minutes per game and averaged 6.6 points and 5.4 rebounds – and that was enough.
If UCLA can get comparable production from its two freshman five men, Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan, it would be considered a win. And, not to place too much expectation on the youngsters, they have a chance to exceed Mata's production that season. Yes, we realize that Mata provided quite a bit in terms of physicality and defense, and Gordon and Morgan are just mere pups of freshmen. But we think they have the capability of being good defenders by the end of the season. Both are good shot blockers, and both have big bodies, with Gordon at 235 (about as much as Mata) and Morgan at 248. Mata might have been stronger than either of them as a junior, but it's not that big of a stretch to expect the two to reasonably be able to defend most of the posts UCLA will face this season. And don't forget, you're still going to have Aboya taking first crack at opposing fives before Gordon and Morgan even get in the game.
Then, throw in Nikola Dragovic, who is finally playing the four, where he belongs. He has improved his body, gotten in better shape and is stronger, at about 220, and will be much more able to defend opposing fours. Then, if Dragovic can finally deliver on what he invariably came to UCLA to do – be an outside shooter – it gives UCLA's frontcourt a difficult added dimension to defend. If you first have Keefe in the game, playing D and getting rebounds, and then make the opposing four have to step out to defend Dragovic, it makes for a very difficult combination for opposing teams to match up against. We hate to say it, but with UCLA's frontcourt being limited offensively this year, the offensive punch Dragovic could potentially provide might be a critical dimension of this team this season.
It really is a matter of UCLA's frontcourt not trying to be Kevin Love, but trying to be Mata and Mbah a Moute – while adding the bonus of Dragovic's offense. If UCLA can develop Aboya, Keefe, Gordon and Morgan to essentially provide the same production – defense and rebounding – that Mata and Mbah a Moute did in 2006-2007, that'd be enough.
After reading the above, it's easy to see where this is going.
You can expect UCLA's offense to return to its perimeter orientation. It's not really out of choice but of necessity. UCLA simply doesn't have any reliable inside scoring threat, and it's probably unlikely it will get it anytime this season.
But that doesn't mean UCLA's offense will be bad. One-dimensional? Perhaps. But it also plays right into Howland's offensive strength.
You might think that, given the reputation Howland has of being a grind-it-out type of coach, that Howland's offense is inside oriented. Most basketball experts believe the contrary, that Howland's sets are more designed to get outside shooters open looks.
Now, while the seasons before the last one elicited many moans from UCLA fans about the one-dimensional, perimeter-oriented offense, it's difficult to argue with the results. UCLA, without really an inside scoring presence, went to two Final Fours in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, with Love, UCLA averaged 73.5 points per game. In 2007, without any inside scoring threat, the Bruins averaged 71.4. Not much difference, and it was, mostly, because Howland knows how to conceive of an offense without effective inside scoring. The coach will have to do it again.
This time around, as we said above, Howland could have more perimeter talent at his disposal, and clearly more options.
Howland will use his now-familiar high-post set to initiate the offense, using ball screens and off-the-ball screens to try to free up shooters. Every year, too, Howland installs a new twist, and if the first exhibition is an indication, he might be using a 1-4 set more often. The 1-4 is used, primarily, for perimeter-oriented offense, to keep movement and screens being set out in space, about 15 feet from the basket, combined with many cuts. It's also more conducive for post players like Aboya, Keefe, Dragovic and Gordon, who are more comfortable shooting while facing the basket, since they curl off setting their screens and can face from 8 to 15 feet. It should also help to give Collison and Holiday more chances to find open lanes to drive through. Howland did some 1-4 last season with Love, when he was trying to utilize Love's shooting ability and draw the opposition's bigs away from the basket, but it seems to fit his personnel even better this season.
Of course, expect the usual high-ball screen that is Howland's bread and butter, especially with the addition of Holiday and his penetrating and decision-making ability.
It's difficult to say if the move of the three-point line back a foot will impact UCLA's offense this season. The more perimeter-oriented Bruins have shooters that probably won't be too affected by the additional foot. It could keep someone like Keefe from looking to shoot from behind the arc, which might be a good thing; it might discourage him from shooting from distance and encourage him to find a mid-range look more often, which he is far better at knocking down.
Morgan might have the best chance at a low-post, back-to-the-basket offense this season. He will probably be able to post up smaller defenders and convert inside. The issue will be when he gets up against the few good – and big – post defenders who are far more experienced and savvy than he.
Either way, don't expect much low-post scoring. Again, the Kevin Love days are now distant memories.
With so many fleet-of-foot guards now on the roster, the thought is that UCLA will "run" more often. It might not be any more than it did last season. It's kind of a fallacy anyway that UCLA, under Howland, doesn't "run." Howland certainly doesn't hold up his transition offense. You might notice him yelling, "Push it! Push it!" after every defensive rebound. It's kind of been assumed by many that, since Howland runs a set offense that is very deliberate in the half-court, that he doesn't run, and it just simply isn't true. So, will he intentionally run more often? No. Since he was doing it as much as he could previously. Will they get more transition scoring? Possibly, since you now have some guys besides Shipp who really can get out on a break – either leading it or finishing it. Holiday is simply one of the best open-court players to come out of high school in recent years, and with how many turnovers the quick-handed Bruin guards will probably create, you might expect more transition scoring this season.
It would certainly help to get as many transition points as possible since UCLA's half-court offense is going grind it out more this season, having to take so much more time to open up its shooters, as opposed to last season when it went through Love in the post. But Howland definitely has the personnel to do it this season, probably moreso than in any of his previous seasons at UCLA.
It sounds almost hollow to say it, since it's been said so often, but UCLA's defense is probably going to determine its fate this season – just like it did in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007. Last season, while UCLA's defense was good, it wasn't as stifling as it was in the two previous seasons. UCLA, given that it now has an offense that is similar to those two years, is not going to have to necessarily out-score its opponent as much as limiting him to less scoring.
The issue is whether UCLA has the potential defensively to be as good as it previously was.
The big concern last season was, after three years of Arron Afflalo, who was going to be the shut-down perimeter defender. Westbrook stepped in and didn't miss a beat, winning the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award. The Bruins might not have that one guy like Afflalo or Westbrook, but it certainly has the potential to be just as effective by committee. In fact, even without Westbrook, UCLA has a chance to be a better perimeter defensive team than it was last year.
First off, it's not unreasonable to expect that the slimmer, sleaker Shipp will be a better on-ball defender. It's not unreasonable to expect the stronger Collison to have improved improved defensively.
Then you have Holiday, who has every chance to be the defender Westbrook or Afflalo were. He'll be prone to mistakes, since he's just a freshman, but he has that same competitiveness and drive to play defense as his two predecessors at the two-guard spot. Plus (and this is saying quite a bit): Holiday is probably a better instinctual defender than either of the two. Afflalo was all about intensity. Westbrook was intensity and athleticism. Holiday is intensity, athleticism and an exceptional feel and knack for it. He has the kind of anticipation that is a one-of-a-kind defensive player. He, as a freshman, might not be quite as good as Afflalo as a junior or Westbrook as a sophomore, but by NCAA tournament time we should re-visit the argument.
Then, throw in two very good defenders in Anderson and Lee, and Howland has quite a few different defensive weapons in his arsenal that he can use to match up against just about anyone. If you're going up against a bigger, slower wing, Shipp gets him. You have a quicker, Kyle Weaver type, you utilize Holiday, or Lee off the bench. You have a team with two small but very quick guards, Collison and Holiday easily can guard them both.
On top of that, the word out of practice is that Roll's defense has improved considerably with his improved and slimmer body. He's not a defensive stopper by any means, but it gives him a chance to stay on the court longer and UCLA a better chance to benefit from his offense.
The worry defensively isn't in the backcourt, but in the post.
Let's first talk about the defense at the four. Keefe's best quality is his defense, not only is he strong enough to match up against big fours, but easily quick enough to stay with them away from the basket. His defense toward the end of last season was exceptional.
Now, on to the five spot.
The one thing that the last three UCLA Final Four teams definitely had over the 2008-2009 edition is a very good post defender at the five. Ryan Hollins, Mata and Love were all exceptional post defenders. UCLA's opponents struggled for the most part (except in the Final Fours) to score down low.
It's the reason why Aboya is the starting five right now. Aboya is a proven post defender, but it comes with some caveats. Again, first and foremost: Aboya must stay out of foul trouble. We don't think he can. There is also the element that Aboya, being 6-7, might not be able to match up against any 6-10+ center.
This is why the defensive development of Gordon and Morgan could, perhaps, be the key to the season. If UCLA can piece together good defense from the five position for 40 minutes with Aboya, Gordon and Morgan, everything else more or less falls into place – including the rest of the defense and even the offense. If UCLA can stop inside scoring from the majority of its opponents, those opponents will have to do what they've done for the past three years, settle for outside shots, which leads to a lower shooting percentage, which leads to defensive rebounds and transition baskets going the other way.
So, watch the defensive development of the two freshmen bigs as a key to the season. Right now, both have a long ways to go, and Howland will probably over-use Aboya while the two get their defensive chops down. But the two definitely have potential, with good shoot-blocking ability and a good defensive feel. Gordon will be better against more mobile centers and Morgan better against bigger guys. It, again, gives Howland some options in which to match up against opponents.
Luckily, though, UCLA doesn't have many opponents on its schedule with elite post players of the 6-10+ variety. Honestly, perhaps the best big on UCLA's schedule is USC's Taj Gibson. ASU's Jeff Pendergraph might be next. Maybe WSU's Aron Baynes. But these aren't, by any means, Al Horford. UCLA simply won't come across too many really good posts who are very good inside scorers.
At least, until UCLA gets to the NCAA Tournament.
The two teams, from 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, that we're comparing this team to didn't really deal with many bigs they couldn't handle until they, well, made it to the Final Four.
That very well could, again, be the case.
Next Up: An analysis of UCLA's schedule and its opponents.