It's interesting to think about how expectations for UCLA basketball have changed during Ben Howland's tenure at UCLA.
Back when Howland took his first team to the Final Four, in 2005-2006, UCLA fans were so beaten down after the Lavin years they were ecstatic just to be there.
Then, two more Final Fours, and the year when it seemed like UCLA had enough talent on the roster with Kevin Love to win a national championship but fell short, and expectations skyrocketed.
Last season, the expectations caught up with the results on the court – and surpassed it. Going into the season UCLA was ranked #4 in most pre-season polls, but throughout the season it was clear that team didn't have what it took to be a national championship contender. It ended the season with a very respectable 26-9 record and a second place finish in the Pac-10, but then got blown by Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
It is now clear that UCLA, having been hit pretty significantly by players going to the NBA early, is in a re-building year. Most fans recognize that, but after Howland elevated basic expectations with three straight Pac-10 championships and Final Fours, what constitutes a successful re-building year has completely been re-defined. Howland definitely went through a re-building year in his first season at UCLA, when he went 11-17, and for the most part, UCLA fans were patient and forgiving.
Can you imagine if this UCLA team, which is actually pretty similar in many ways to Howland's team in his first season at UCLA, went 11-17?
Shudder to think about it. Especially coming off a football season that doesn't look like it's going to be too satisfying for UCLA fans either.
It won't be as bad as 11-17, but it would be surprising if they got to the 25-win mark again this year.
In fact, fans should probably throw out any win/loss-record expectations with this year's team, and judge the season by how well the team improves from November to March. That will be the ultimate test of how successful of a season this is.
If you have any other expectations than that, you should step away from the crack pipe.
There are just too many unknowns about the team, and too many aspects that you could see potentially limiting the team this year, to expect anything else.
The most obvious: Of UCLA's 12 scholarship athletes, 10 of them are freshmen or sophomores. And not one sophomore played more than 10 minutes per game a year ago.
So, here's how it looks from a personnel standpoint.
GUARDS AND WINGS
Let's start with Anderson. As we said in the Concordia game review, he's the only true, D-1 point guard on the team. So, obviously, without him UCLA would be at a considerable deficit.
He's been out with a groin injury for all of the pre-season practices until this week. He's expected to be able to play in the exhibition game against Humboldt State Monday.
If the groin injury, or any other injury, arises during the season, UCLA will be in trouble, which makes Anderson the Year's Most Important Bruin.
Now, that's putting a great deal of pressure on young Mr. Anderson. He is only a sophomore, that came to UCLA last year behind a senior, Darren Collison, who was a first-round draft pick. So, he didn't get much playing time, averaging just 8.5 minutes per game. Many observers have tried to compare him to, say, Collison or Jordan Farmar in their first year at UCLA, but it was a different situation, with less playing time available and, most importantly, less time to develop as a player.
It's unfair to expect Anderson to be near-flawless this season. He will have growing pains. There will be times when he turns over the ball, makes a poor decision, misses a wide-open three, or allows his man to get around him on defense.
But there is also so much to look forward to in terms of Anderson running the point for UCLA. He's an exceptional natural passer, who is a pass-first kind of point guard, which means the ball will move more in the offense. Collison was an exceptional player, but not necessarily a great, natural point guard; there were times when a play would be run and executed well, the designated shooter would be open, but Collison was late or oblivious to getting him the ball. Anderson will be an improvement in that regard. From what I've heard, he's more savvy in Howland's offense now than Collison was as a senior. That's not saying he's a more effective player than Collison – there weren't too many players in UCLA's recent history who could create and make a basket on a critical possession like Collison – but the offense has the potential to be executed better with Anderson as the point guard.
Anderson has gotten bigger in his shoulders and arms, which should help him in staying on the ball and not getting knocked off by defenders. He's also improved his jump shot --- a bit. He's always had slowish mechanics and shot a bit of a knuckle ball, but it's going to down more often than it did a year ago.
Defensively, Anderson will be key, as the point guard always is in Howland's offense. Anderson is a good defender, who uses his length well, and while he'll undoubtedly make some mistakes this season, look for him to be improved defensively.
What UCLA needs from Anderson is a steadiness, an ability to get his scorers the ball, and a capability of staying out of foul trouble, since the back-up point guard situation isn't a good one.
Sophomore guard Malcolm Lee will be called on to supply those back-up point guard minutes, and so much more. Lee, who has a huge amount of athleticism and talent, will start at the off-guard position, and be asked to be UCLA's perimeter defensive stopper, in the mold of Arron Afflalo or Russell Westbrook. He has the tools to have a very successful season both offensively and defensively, but it will be a matter of whether he matures and develops enough to the point he makes more good plays than bad. Lee would have a lot on his plate if he were asked just to play under control. Or, if he were just being asked to be the two-guard, or maybe also just the defensive stopper, we'd feel that Lee would be able to handle it so much easier; but he's also being asked to provide 8 minutes of playing back-up point guard, which could overload him.
Reasonable expectations for Lee would be for him to, by February, be under control offensively, not putting the ball on the floor too much but taking advantage of a mid-range game, shoot 40% from three, and to be effectively defensively.
Even if this all occurs, we maintain that it would be a longshot for Lee to go pro after this season. He's not a point guard, in our opinion, without a true point guard feel for the game, so it's not like pro scouts will value him like they did Westbrook or Jrue Holiday. Now, this isn't taking into consideration a bad decision on Lee's part and putting his name into the draft and staying in it even though he's not projected as a first-round pick.
Mike Roll, as we saw against Concordia, is a vital part to this team this season. He, for one, will provide the bulk of UCLA's threat from the outside, but he will also complement Anderson and Lee as one of the best passing backcourts around. You can expect post feeds to happen more frequently. Roll, probably most importantly, will provide the senior leadership that this young team will need. He's also slimmed down some and has, reportedly, improved his on-ball defense. In practice, reports are that he's shot the ball very well. We believe, too, that Roll will eventually be utilized as a back-up point guard option.
Those three starters will carry the bulk of the minutes at the three perimeter spots. Again, that makes it tough for UCLA to weather any kind of adversity, particularly long-running injuries, this season.
The first perimeter player off the bench will be freshman Tyler Honeycutt, who could be the most naturally talented player on the team. He has an exceptional offensive feel, with a great passing ability and vision. His shot is going to be inconsistent this season, but he'll be able to create for others better than any three man in recent UCLA history. A big added bonus would be if Honeycutt could play solid defense, and the reports from practice are that he's a quick study. Even if he isn't a great defender, he's going to get playing time since UCLA is so thin on the perimeter. Again, this team has the potential to be one of the best passing UCLA teams in a long time, and Honeycutt's passing ability will only add to that.
The reports from practice are that Mike Moser, the 6-7 freshman wing, is a bit overwhelmed. He's a good athlete who's raw, and is currently slowed by how much he's having to learn from Howland. Just in terms of defensive fundamentals – when to hedge, what foot to lead with on a close-out, when to bump a screen, when to provide help defense, where your hands should be, etc. – is a great deal to take in if you haven't been taught it before. Moser, like Honeycutt, played center on his high school team, so defending on the perimeter is an all-new experience for him. In Howland's program, though, we know that playing good defense will get you on the court, and with Moser's length and foot speed for his height, he has a chance to be a very good defender, and his chance this season at playing time will depend on just how much defensive fundamentals he can absorb to be effective defensively. And, of course, how much effort he dedicates to defense.
If, by mid-Pac-10 play, Moser is coming off the bench and providing 10-12 minutes of good defensive play, it would be a considerable success for him.
Howland has said that Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, the former walk-on, will get the point guard minutes behind Anderson and Lee. Abdul-Hamid, as we've said, is a quality kid, the type you want in the UCLA program, but he's a walk-on caliber player. If he gets any kind of significant minutes, it will mean UCLA is in significant trouble. Hopefully, after a poor showing against Concordia, if he does actually get some minutes, he'll settle down, be solid and play decent defense.
While the UCLA back-court is under-manned, the frontcourt is over-stocked. There just isn't enough playing time to go around and we think it will result in some shake-out by the end of the season. Someone will probably transfer out.
But before that there should be a healthy competition to earn a role.
Senior Nikola Dragovic is the one complete known quantity. He's improved physically since last season, and hopefully he'll have the same mindset and hustle he had last season, compared to what we saw against Concordia.
If Dragovic plays even close to how he did last season, he'll be UCLA's leading scorer, probably averaging even more than he should since there just aren't many scoring options on this team this season. He has a chance to be all-Pac-10 this season.
The next known quantity is senior James Keefe. Keefe hasn't lived up to the expectation of being a McDonald's All-American out of high school, and he's had some detours along the way in his UCLA career – injuries, being pulled out of a redshirt season, getting too bulked up last season, etc. But he is easily one of the most stable and reliable players on the team for this season, as was very evident against Concordia. Having lost some of the bulk, he clearly is moving and elevating better.
Sophomore Drew Gordon will either start at center, or come in pretty quickly to spell Keefe at the spot. Gordon is a bit of an enigma – with a good amount of talent that enables him to make a pretty good play one minute, and then enough immaturity that he'll make a pretty bone-headed play the next minute. Gordon's issue will be whether he can stick to the fundamentals that Howland has tried to teach him over the last year – things like not leaving your feet after a pump fake, how to slide over and take a charge, not immediately putting the ball on the floor, etc. Against Concordia it didn't seem like there was much evidence of maturity from last season. Hopefully that was just an aberration of first-exhibition nerves.
Those are the eight that will probably make up the bulk of Howland's rotation: Anderson, Lee, Roll, Honeycutt and Moser on the perimeter, and Dragovic, Gordon and Keefe inside.
The next candidate for playing time would be J'mison Morgan, who offers Howland an option that no one else on the team does – that of a true center. At 6-10 and long, he's a presence inside, and a good enough shot blocker that he could alter offenses. Morgan, as has been well-documented, is in considerably better shape, having lost at least 25 pounds and reportedly without the stamina issues from a year ago. Watch for Morgan to get PT when UCLA needs someone to match up against true, big – slower – centers.
If there are any minutes left in the frontcourt, freshmen Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane will fight for them. Nelson has done well in practice, reportedly, leading the team in rebounds. But we've also heard that Lane, before he sat out this week with an ankle injury, had moved past Nelson in the hierarchy. Nelson is stronger and a better rebounder, but he's limited skills-wise; Lane lacks strength, but is skilled, with nice interior moves and a good outside shooting ability. We heard, actually, if Lane had been healthy he probably would have started against Concordia. It's generally thought he'll be healthy enough to go against Humboldt State Monday.
Freshman center Anthony Stover will almost certainly redshirt. It would be good that UCLA could build a comfortable lead against Humboldt so Stover could see some minutes. Reports are from practice that Stover is exactly what was anticipated – raw. In the practice we saw, he looked like a colt – all knees and elbows. A year in the program, and in the weight program, will greatly benefit him.
Well, hopefully there will be some, since after Concordia there is a little bit of concern whether UCLA had an offense.
Without Collison and Josh Shipp, UCLA will need someone to step up and take on the scoring load. That looks to mainly be Dragovic and Roll.
But what's good about Howland's strict offensive system is that it isn't dependent year after year on having players that are NBA talents who can create their own shot. Howland's offense is based on execution, and if its parts do what they're supposed to do, you don't need NBA-talented players to score sufficiently.
What Howland's offense does need, however, are players who can run sets efficiently and fundamentally, and execute.
Against Concordia, UCLA couldn't even get into its offensive set it was so poor in its execution.
Of course, the two guys who are probably the best at execution are Roll and Anderson, and they didn't play against Concordia.
Last season, veterans Collison and Shipp were the main cogs of the offense, and they weren't exactly great executors themselves. Collison, as we said, was miraculous at creating opportunities when you needed a basket. And Shipp, when he played within himself, could really put the ball in the basket. But they didn't function well within Howland's offense – that is, they weren't disciplined in their execution of the offense, which should result in fairly easy baskets – so you wouldn't have to get to the point where you needed Collison to make a last-second basket right before the shot clock expired.
So, with Anderson and Roll, expect more dedication to executing Howland's offense, which means more ball movement, passing and attention to detail in executing the sets.
Now, whether that results in more baskets is uncertain. With a young team that hasn't practiced much together, and a new point guard, it's pretty easy to speculate that there are going to be some breakdowns and mistakes in UCLA's pursuit of offensive execution. Particularly early on in the season.
Watch for UCLA to try to get Roll as many open looks as possible, with screens, double-screens, staggered screens, etc., all being set to get him just enough space to get off his jumper. Watch for Dragovic to be even further utilized as a scorer, trying to draw slower defenders out to have to guard him on the perimeter and getting him to post up smaller defenders in the paint. It's why, at times, you very well could see Keefe, Gordon and Dragovic on the court at the same time, as you did against Concordia, to take advantage of mismatches Dragovic creates when playing essentially the small forward position.
UCLA will, again, like last year, not have a go-to scorer in the paint. Alfred Aboya improved last season, but it was a far cry from someone being a true low-post scoring threat – like Kevin Love. When Howland does have that inside threat his offense really becomes fully realized and fully dimensional. But that probably won't be this season. Gordon, Keefe and Morgan have all improved in their back-to-the-basket game, but not enough that UCLA will look inside like it did when it had Love. UCLA showed last season that, even if you don't have a go-to inside scorer, it's still essential to get the post offensive touches, to create opportunities, at the very least, for other scorers away from the ball. With good post feeders like Anderson and Roll on the team, watch for the ball to go down low more often to at least make defenses honor UCLA inside.
Probably what you can expect is a lot of sloppiness offensively early on this season. And what you can hope for is, by the end of the season, there is some very effective offensive execution and easy baskets.
One of the most exciting aspects of UCLA's offense this season will be to watch Honeycutt and what his play-making ability can do to make the offense more dynamic. That isn't just creating for himself, but making that extra, skilled pass.
DEFENSE This is where this year's version looks to not even resemble a Howland-coached UCLA team, at least early on.
UCLA's defense has been characterized by three things under Howland: 1) very good on-ball pressure, 2) very well-executed post defense, especially in terms of help defense and 3) a dedication and desire to dominate defensively.
With the personnel that UCLA has this season, it's uncertain as to where the stifling on-ball defense is going to come from, especially because of the lack of experience and depth. Lee, as we've said, has the potential to be a lock-down defender in the mold of Afflalo or Westbrook, but he still has a lot to learn defensively and could be over-loaded. Heck, Holiday was supposed to be the lock-down defender last season and he was over-loaded with the responsibility. Anderson, also, will have to provide good on-ball pressure on opposing point guards, a staple of UCLA's defense, to keep offenses out of sync in their execution. Anderson has the potential to do that, but it's going to be very challenging for him to do it against all of the talented point guards UCLA will face this season. Last year, again, even Collison, who was thought to be a great on-ball defender, wore down as the season went on.
UCLA, too, will be susceptible to the 5-10ish, quick point guard, since it doesn't really have anyone capable of matching up with a player like that.
The perimeter D, though, will probably develop and get better as the season goes on, as Lee and Anderson get comfortable with their roles. They, in fact, might even be an overall improvement on last season's perimeter D.
But the interior defense is where you can expect to see some drop-off. You can't under-appreciate the job that Aboya did defensively in the post. He was a rock inside man-on-man, and then was easily one of the best post help defenders ever. If there was a UCLA record for taking charges, we're certain Aboya set it for his career and season. UCLA simply doesn't have anyone who can play interior defense like Aboya this season.
It's just not taking charges, either. It's about knowing every element of Howland's defense so it functions properly. If someone misses an assignment, or does something slightly wrong, the whole defense can break down. Keefe is pretty good at knowing his defensive assignments; Dragovic improved defensively over the course of last season; Gordon also improved last season, but still has a long ways to go, and there's a question of whether he has the acumen to ever be able to really master it.
The staff has been saying for the last month that the team isn't greatly quick, but it does have very good length, and that they may attempt a few tweaks defensively to take advantage of that. Something that more closely resembles the Washington State team defense under Tony Bennett was given as an example.
Yes, we know the point is moot, but there was a time in the Concordia game when Greg Hicks and I thought, given the personnel on the floor, UCLA should really be playing a zone. I know, bite our tongue.
Bennett's man-to-man D, though, uses some zone-like principles in that it's predicated quite a bit on less ball pressure and more help defense stuffing the middle to take away penetration.
A big factor defensively will be whether UCLA can get some defensive help off the bench from Moser, or Honeycutt, or anyone else. UCLA needs another good perimeter defender other than its three starters. If not, it's easy to see Anderson, Roll and Lee just not having enough in the tank to stay with some of waves of guards UCLA opponents will throw at them.
Next Up: An analysis of UCLA's schedule and its opponents.