Hoops Predictions and Expectations

Coming off three straight Final Fours, what are reasonable expectations for the 2008-2009 Bruins? Will Ben Howland, Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and the rest of the Blue crew be cutting down nets in March, like they've been accustomed to doing the last three years?

If you combine the last two seasons, our predictions for the regular-season records have been off by just two games.

In 2006-2007, we predicted the Bruins would finish 26-4, and they did, in fact. In 2007-2008, we predicted 26-5 and they finished 28-3.

This season, the prediction will be a bit more difficult, since there's far more unknown about the team and its personnel this season than last season, and even compared to the 2006-2007 season.

In making predictions, though, we want to emphasize, like we have in the past, that there is so much luck involved in college basketball that it's difficult to really take too much from it. There is not only the random fortune of injuries, last-second shots, and the bounce of the ball. But the NCAA Tournament, really, is based so much on luck – like with a team's draw, or simply being able to defy the odds (no matter how good you are) and win six games in a row.

So, predictions shouldn't elicit expectations, in other words. Predictions are going out on a limb, and not necessarily setting the bar for what you would expect – and accept as successful – from a team's performance in any given year. You can predict a team to make the Final Four, but, then given the circumstances (say, a heart-breaking, last-minute, buzzer-beater loss in the Elite Eight), still accept the season as a success if the team doesn't reach the Final Four.

Many fans assert that how a team does in the NCAA Tournament is the only standard to judge a team's season, but we strongly disagree. Again, the Tournament is just far too random for it to be the only determinating factor, or even the most predominant. We believe, actually, that the regular season should be more heavily weighted in evaluating a team's performance for the season.

So, we'll give you a prediction, but also provide what would be reasonable expectations for the season. That is, the minimum accomplishment of what should reasonably be deemed successful given this team, the schedule, and the randomness of the NCAA tournament.

Every year, in analyzing UCLA's schedule, it's definitely a case of breaking down UCLA's opponents into two categories: the legitimate opponents and the clear cupcakes.

The non-conference cupcakes line up this way: Prairie View A&M, Weber State/Miami (Ohio), Florida International, De Paul, Cal State Northridge, Loyola Marymount, Mercer, Wyoming and Louisiana Tech.

Among the softest of them are PV A&M, Florida International, Loyola Marymount, Mercer, Wyoming, and Louisiana Tech.

The slightly tougher ones should be Weber State/Miami (Ohio), Cal State Northridge and De Paul. Weber State, Ben Howland's alma mater, and Miami (Ohio) are both picked to finish in the top third of their respective conferences, while Cal State Northridge is the favorite to win the Big West. De Paul isn't expected to be much this year, but they are a Big East team, with Big East-level athletes.

While you have to be at least wary of these opponents, they still shouldn't come within 12-15 points of the Bruins.

So, even though it might sound arrogant, it's realistic to expect UCLA to go 9-0 in these games.

Then there are the non-conference non-cupcakes. This probably includes the 2K Sports Classic semi-final and final in Madison Square Garden November 20th and 21st; at Texas December 4th and then Notre Dame in Pauley halfway through the Pac-10 season.

If all goes as expected, UCLA should face its old familiar friend, Michigan, and its familiar coaching friend, John Beilein, in the 2K Sports semi-final. If UCLA gets past the semi, it will more than likely face Duke, which starts the season ranked 5th (right behind UCLA at 4th) in the ESPN/USA Today Poll, and 8th in the AP Poll. Texas is ranked 8th and 7th, respectively. While it's three months away, it's probably safe to assume that Notre Dame will also be very competitive game, with the Fighting Irish beginning the season at #9 in both polls.

UCLA, under Howland, when he's had young, inexperienced players, has looked, well, young and inexperienced against good teams very early in the season. Duke returns four of five starters, along with some experience reserves, so we think this could be an instance like in 2005 when a young UCLA squad faced an experienced Memphis team in the NIT semi-final in, coincidentally, Madison Square Garden and was beaten pretty handily (remember, though, the same UCLA team with 30 or so more games under its belt then beat Memphis in the NCAA Regional Final later in March).

The Texas game will only be UCLA's fifth game of the season, with the young Bruins facing a team on the road at a non-neutral site for the first time this season.

We'll be conservative and say 0-2 in those two.

By the time UCLA faces Notre Dame, though, in February, it should be two-thirds of the way through the regular season and the Bruin youngsters should be shedding most of their greeness Being at home, we'll chalk that one up to a win.

So, in non-conference overall, 11-2.

It wouldn't be surprising at all, however, if UCLA beats either Duke or Texas. Duke is still expected to be a perimeter-oriented team, so it could be two great perimeter teams squaring off, and anything can happen. Kyle Singler, actually, could be the difference in that game that could tip it to Duke. Texas, also, doesn't have an elite true center, which enables UCLA to match up with the Longhorns well.

But on to the Pac-10.

The conference, like in any year, can be separated into two tiers. In one tier are clearly UCLA, Arizona State, and USC, and, to be generous, we'll throw in Arizona and Washington.

Washington State, California, Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State are in the bottom tier.

Of course, WSU and Oregon – and maybe even Cal under Mike Montgomery – have a chance to defy expectation and play themselves into the upper tier this season.

Now, of course, even after dividing the teams into two tiers, it ain't nothing like the quality of the upper tier from last season – or even the lower tier. In the pre-season top 25 polls last year, the Pac-10 started with 5 schools besides UCLA in the rankings. This year, beside UCLA, just two (Arizona State and USC).

Just to give you a sense of how much better the conference was a year ago, Cal, a team that had two NBA draft picks, finished 9th.

So, while UCLA is probably not near as good a team as it was last year, it will be playing in a conference that has dropped off proportionally more from last season.

That should pad UCLA's conference record some, at least enough to give it a good shot at a very high seed in the west for the NCAA Tournament.

In two years, UCLA has only lost one conference game at home (last season, against USC). In three years, just three games (in 2005-2006, the Bruins were beaten in Pauley by Cal and Washington). That's a pretty formidable record. It's definitely a development directly attributed to Howland's program, and it's not a stretch to expect UCLA to play very strong again at home this season.

So, the up-in-the-air games for the season are:

ASU at home
Arizona at home
@ Washington State
@ Washington
USC at home
@ Arizona
Washington at home

That's nine toss-up games, and we'll say UCLA goes 6-3 in those games. If you take into consideration how UCLA did in the last two seasons in what you would have thought were the toss-up games, that's pretty conservative.
Just to be even more conservative, let's say UCLA gets upset in one of the other games you'd expect it to clearly win. That's four losses in the Pac-10.
So UCLA goes 14-4 in the conference, which is still probably good enough to win a conference title.
So, on the season, UCLA then finishes 25-6.

Predicted Order of Finish in the Pac-10:

Arizona State
Washington State
Oregon State

The question being: Is 25-6 good enough to get UCLA the #1 seed in the west? Probably not. But it's probably good enough for a #2 seed in the west. In 2007, UCLA went 26-4 on the season and got the #2 seed. In 2006, it went 24-6 and got a #2 seed.

Theoretically, there isn't that much difference between a #1 or #2 seed, in terms of enhancing your chances of making the Final Four.

Now, trying to predict the outcome of the NCAA tournament – in November – is foolish. We'll say, though, that if UCLA gets a #2 seed or better, we would expect the Bruins to make the Regional Final. That means: expectations are reasonable for UCLA to make the Elite Eight.

We predict, however, that UCLA will face #1-seed Duke in that regional final, and as history has a habit of repeating itself, the more-experienced Bruins will avenge their early-season loss against the Blue Devils and beat them. It will probably come down to a last-second three at the buzzer by Darren Collison, and UCLA will move on to its fourth-straight Final Four. UCLA, then, will lose to a team in either the national semi-final or final that has an inside player that UCLA struggles to defend.

In the illogical world of sports and sports fans, it seems completely fitting that UCLA would go to its fourth Final Four in a row, and probably not win a national championship. It would be fitting since it would probably elicit some expression of unfilled expectations from fans if UCLA lost in another Final Four rather than losing in the Elite Eight. So, since making predictions on the NCAA tournament in November is preposterous, we'll go with what seems a fitting end to the season.

But regardless of this business of predicting season outcomes and NCAA tournaments, the now-evolved Bruin fan is merely happy to be in the national championship conversation. He knows Howland has the program rolling, and even a loss in the Sweet 16 wouldn't diminish Howland's accomplishments at UCLA.

So, really, throw out all of this – all of the expectations and predictions – and enjoy what should be a very good and entertaining UCLA season.

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