Thanks to a very impressive incoming recruiting class, the sky’s the limit for coach Ben Howland and his UCLA Bruins this approaching college basketball season. But as many fans and experts know, it doesn’t take much for the sky to fall on any team with Final Four dreams.
Whether or not the Bruins live up to the insane hype that has been dropped upon them like an unbearable albatross will likely rest on a few key factors in the 2012-13 season.
Here they are.
Highly hyped freshman forward Shabazz Muhammad is the most decorated high school player to commit to UCLA since Kevin Love. Muhammad is arguably the biggest reason for all the high expectations for the Bruins this upcoming basketball season.
But the expectations will be lowered immensely if Muhammad’s eligibility issues prevent him from taking the court in Westwood.
There have been some question marks concerning Muhammad’s eligibility in the eyes of the NCAA. It revolves mostly around financial dealings between Muhammad’s family and family friends Benjamin Lincoln and Ken Kavanagh.
While he hasn’t been ruled ineligible by the NCAA thus far, it’s a serious enough issue to the point where UCLA coach Ben Howland didn’t allow Muhammad to travel with the team during a week-long exhibition trip to China at the end of August (via ESPN).
The saga that is Muhammad’s eligibility has a “to be continued” feel; the NCAA’s investigation into the matter is still ongoing. But needless to say, if it ends with the sensational forward being forced to sit out a year, UCLA’s high aspirations will come crashing down.
Surprisingly, quite a good bit of UCLA’s success in 2012-13 could rest on the burly shoulders of junior center Joshua Smith. If Smith’s productivity returns back to that of his freshman campaign at UCLA (when he had 11 PPG and 6.3 RPG), then he’ll be an outstanding complement to coach Ben Howland’s talented freshman class.
However, if Bruins fans see more of the same from Smith, who only averaged 17 minutes per game last season and saw a dip in his production, then the end results won’t be pretty. In a nutshell, Smith’s contributions went down as his weight went up last season.
According to ESPN LA, Smith has been putting in the effort to keep his weight in check. That’s important to UCLA’s chances this upcoming campaign. An effective Smith gives the Bruins a reliable inside presence and the balance that could make them very tough to contain on both ends of the court.
But an ineffective Smith leaves the Bruins thin and potentially vulnerable up front.
If Ben Howland can find the right man to run the point for the UCLA Bruins, their offense could be deadly in 2012-13. But who’s the man for the job?
As of right now, it looks like two Bruins are vying for the point guard duties in Westwood: freshman point-forward Kyle Anderson and North Carolina Transfer Larry Drew II.
Both certainly bring positive aspects to the table. Anderson has remarkable ball-handling abilities for a player of his height (6’8”).
Drew brings experience at the position with him to Los Angeles from Chapel Hill, where he was North Carolina’s starting point guard for his sophomore season prior to transferring. However, both players also have their fair share of baggage.
Anderson’s lack of experience has to be concerning to UCLA coach Ben Howland, considering he’s just a freshman. And although Drew is experienced, he’s had a pretty mediocre career at the position thus far.
That’s a big reason why Drew was benched for the more dynamic Kendall Marshall back at North Carolina, which led to his transferring out West. Whether it’s Anderson, Drew or a combination of both manning the position, quality point guard play could make or break UCLA’s hopes for a big 2012-13 season.
It goes without saying that any team that hopes to be very successful usually has to stay healthy. The problem for UCLA is that the injury bug has bitten them well before the college basketball season has even started.
Specifically, injuries have struck each member of UCLA’s hyped freshman trio this offseason. Shabazz Muhammad has been plagued this summer with a high ankle injury.
Kyle Anderson had to have surgery on one of his hands this past June. And Tony Parker hurt his hamstring during a UCLA practice in early August, causing him to miss the team’s recent exhibition trip to China.
Make no mistake; these three freshmen are expected to be stars for the Bruins this upcoming season. If any of these injuries linger beyond the summer, then UCLA could run into some trouble in the fall and beyond.
However, if the Bruins’ cubs can get healthy, the team as a whole will undoubtedly benefit.
The UCLA Bruins have the potential to own the glass when it comes to grabbing rebounds this upcoming college basketball season.
If junior center Joshua Smith can play like he did as a freshman, and if freshman Tony Parker can live up to the hype of being one of the most sought-after big men in the country, then that’s a solid start for the Bruins.
And if the Wear brothers (Travis and David) can hit the boards like they did last season (the two combined to average over 12 RPG last year), that will further bolster UCLA’s rebounding abilities.
The Bruins are going to need that manpower down low. For starters, UCLA will have to contend with stud Arizona freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski in Pac-12 play.
Other frontcourts who could give the Bruins fits on the glass include Washington (featuring Aziz N’Diaye and Desmond Simmons) and Oregon (with E.J. Singler and Tony Woods).
If UCLA’s frontcourt quartet steps up to the challenge in 2012-13, that could make all the difference for coach Ben Howland’s squad.