Hoops Prediction and Expectations

It's going to be a bit of a strange year, with a young UCLA team facing a non-conference schedule that is tougher than the down Pac-10. The question is: How improved will UCLA be by next February?

It is complete folly to try to predict a season's outcome, especially when you haven't seen most of this season's version of UCLA's opponents. Then, throw in the uncertainty with injuries, and just pure luck, and it's really a crapshoot. Like we've said before, random fortune is a huge factor, from last-second shots and the mere bounce of the ball.

It's especially foolish, too, when it comes to predicting a team's performance in the NCAA tournament in March – way back here in November. Not only is there an entire season to be played, but the NCAA Tournament is so much about a team's draw and match-ups, and its fortune in being able to defy the odds and win six games in a row.

But trying to predict the season is an annual tradition here at BRO, so we'll indulge it for another season.

Usually, in breaking down UCLA's schedule, you'd put the non-conference opponents into two categories – the cupcakes and the non-cupcakes. But this season, with UCLA being such a young, inexperienced team without much depth in the backcourt, it's difficult to put very many non-conference opponents into the cupcake category, when you take them in relation to this year's Bruins. Especially when you consider that this year's UCLA team will probably be quite a bit different in February than it is in November, banking that it will improve precipitously due to the team's overall youth and inexperience. And the fact that UCLA's non-conference schedule looks to be pretty tough.

So, we're going to have to do this one game at a time in this season's prediction.

UCLA starts off against Cal State Fullerton next Monday. The Titans lose their best player from last season, high-scoring Josh Akognon, but return their other four starters, so it's a pretty experienced team. It will be a close game for the Bruins, but they should win it by a closer-than-comfortable margin. 1-0

Cal State Bakersfield will be going through its final year of a three-year transition from Division 2, where it was a powerhouse, to playing Division 1. Last season it went 8-21, but the Roadrunners return a bunch of veterans and shouldn't be a complete cupcake. A Bruin win, but probably not a blowout. 2-0

Pepperdine, actually, might be the easiest of UCLA's first three games, coming off a 9-23 record and still with the majority of its players being sophomores or younger. 3-0.

Portland, on the other hand, has a decent chance to knock off the Bruins in the first round of the 76 Classic in Anaheim. First, there's not really a homecourt advantage for UCLA, and the Pilots are coming off a 19-13 record last season and return all starters, four of them seniors.

If UCLA does get by Portland, they'd play Butler or Minnesota. The Butler Bulldogs set a school record 30-4 season last year and lost no one from that team. They are a pre-season #10 in the ESPN/USA Today Poll. If UCLA end up playing Minnesota in either the second round or in the loser's bracket, the Gophers will be tough, too, coming off a 22-win season and losing no one of significance.

It then could face a good team even in the 3rd, 5th or 7th place game – like West Virginia, Clemson, or Texas A&M, or even a solid Long Beach State team.

We're going to say the young Bruins take their early-season lumps in the 76 Classic and go 1-2.

So, that brings the season record to 4-2.

#1-ranked Kansas at Pauley. 4-3.

They then travel again to Anaheim to face #19 Mississippi State in the Wooden Classic, another opponent that didn't lose anyone significant from a team that went 23-13 last season. After UCLA goes through the gauntlet of the 76 Classic and Kansas, they'll probably be much improved, but probably still not good enough for a win here. 4-4.

You'd hope that New Mexico State, UCLA's next opponent, would be in a rebuilding year, but they're not. They're still young, but return everyone from a team that went 17-15 last season. We'll say the improved Bruins get a win here, but it's not going to be easy. 5-4.

UCLA then goes on the real road for the first time this season, to South Bend to take on what should be a pretty good Notre Dame team that still has Luke Harangody (how long has that guy been there?). We'll say UCLA struggles for its first road game, 5-5.

The Bruins return home and face probably their worst opponent since Pepperdine in Colorado State, who are merely hoping for a winning record this season. 6-5.

A mediocre Delaware State team then comes into Pauley to end UCLA's non-conference schedule. 7-5.

Whew, 7-5 you say? Have I lost plenty of readers at this point already?

But with that fairly tough non-conference schedule, where UCLA could face three ranked teams and plenty of other solid ones, it's going to greatly enhance the development of this year's Bruins heading into the Pac-10 schedule.

Especially since the Pac-10 is probably weaker than UCLA's non-conference schedule this year.

UCLA starts Pac-10 play against Arizona State and Arizona in Pauley. The Sun Devils have to replace James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, and will still be trying to figure out how to do that. Arizona will be breaking in some very young players and should probably still be trying to find itself, and UCLA will actually have more experience than the Wildcats. So, at home, UCLA gets two wins. 9-5 (2-0).

On the road to the Bay Area, you'd have to say UCLA loses against Pac-10 favorite Cal, even though they looked more like wild-and-wooly Oregon last night. The Bruins will get one in Palo Alto from the Cardinal, who are going to really struggle this year, having lost Mitch Johnson, Anthony Goods, and Lawrence Hill. 10-6 (3-1). USC at home, and the Trojans aren't going to be as bad as everyone thinks. They'll, at least, be a good rebounding team with Alex Stepheson and Leonard Washington, and they'll have Dwight Lewis, who will be happy to touch the ball so much more with DeMar DeRozan, Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson now gone. He averaged 14 points per game last season and should come close to averaging 23 points this season. But at home, in Pauley, UCLA wins. 11-6 (4-1).

Washington and Washington State are at Pauley next. We'll say this is a loss at home against UDub since they'll have such an edge in the backcourt, and a win over Washington State, since they won't have much else besides Klay Thompson. 12-7 (5-2).

On the road to Oregon and Oregon State. We don't know which game UCLA will win, but we'll go for a split on the road. 13-8 (6-3).

Stanford in Pauley. 14-8 (7-3).

Then, one of the biggest games of the year when UCLA faces Cal in Pauley. We'll say by February 6th, the Bruins will have found some rhythm, if there aren't any significant injuries, and the Golden Bears might be a bit of a mess by then, with so many guys wanting the ball. 15-8 (8-3).

UCLA will then be feeling pretty good and will go across town to get those hopes tempered when it loses to USC in the Galen Center. 15-9 (8-4).

At Washington State, we'll still have to go for a win. At Washington. UCLA is cursed in Seattle. 16-10 (9-5).

Oregon State and Oregon at home. The Bruins are looking like they're hitting a stride, especially playing against two midling Pac-10 teams at home. 18-10 (11-5).

At Arizon and Arizona State, and UCLA ends the regular season with another split. 19-11 (12-6).

12-6 in the conference probably gets UCLA a third-place finish in the Pac-10.

The Bruins probably live up to expectation and go 1-1 in the Pac-10 tournament, and have a record of 20-12 heading into the NCAA Tournament.

A 12-6 record against a down Pac-10 isn't going to go far with the NCAA Tournament committee. That's probably only good for a 7 or 8 seed, which could make them upset specials when they face a 9 or 10 seed in the first round. But we'll say UCLA has improved by next March (again, barring significant injuries) and, even though the Pac-10 didn't prepare them much for the NCAA Tournament, the experience in their non-conference games did – well, at least enough to get UCLA past the first round.

But then they face a #1 or #2 seed in the second round and that would be that.

21-13 overall, and valuable experience for all of UCLA's youngsters as they return for the 2010-2011 season.

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