UCLA Basketball: 5 Burning Questions for the 2012 Season
The UCLA basketball program has fallen on hard times of late, but there's plenty of reason to believe that the 2012-13 season will bring some of that lost glory back to Westwood.
A top recruiting class, a core of returning veterans and a brand-new, modernized Pauley Pavilion all preparing for the rebirth of Bruin basketball. Now that sounds like a recipe for success.
Unfortunately, UCLA's triumphant return to the renown of NCAA blue blood might not be so simple after all.
The 2012 Bruins have a slew of unsolved mysteries, the biggest of which is completely beyond their control. So just how close is UCLA to its modern-day coming out party?
Nobody knows. But here are five burning questions to ponder while we wait to find out.
Will the Freshmen Be Eligible?
The uncertainty surrounding the eligibility of prized freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson is the top storyline for UCLA this season, and rightfully so.
The pair of top-five recruits is still awaiting word from the NCAA on amateurism certification, and until the verdict comes down from Indianapolis, it's hard not to hyper-focus on this issue. As two-thirds of UCLA's new Big Three, Muhammad and Anderson represent both the present and future hope of Bruin basketball.
Well, maybe that's overstating it a bit.
The Bruins still have two elite freshmen coming from their No. 1 class in sharpshooting Jordan Adams and space-eating center Tony Parker. Adams is a 6'5", 220-pound scoring machine. His perimeter stroke and shot-creating ability could really spark a UCLA offense that has lacked a lights-out shooter for years.
Parker also figures to have an impact immediately, providing quality depth in the frontcourt and bringing an offensive repertoire that has scouts salivating. The 6'9", 270-pound McDonald's All-American should be a significant upgrade over the offensively challenged Anthony Stover, who was dismissed from the team in August after failing to meet academic eligibility requirements.
And if Parker can be even a fraction of the shot-blocker that Stover was (1.4 BPG in just 8.4 minutes), he will be a fan favorite in Westwood right away.
So even if Muhammad and Anderson are both held out by the NCAA, UCLA is guaranteed an infusion of young talent. Couple that with a solid, experienced group of returners, and you have to think the Bruins will be improved. But just how much of a turnaround they can make in 2012 will ultimately rest on the rulings of NCAA investigators.
A recent report from NBC Sports claims that Anderson is likely to be cleared by the NCAA after nearly a month of investigation, but mum's the word on Muhammad. The lengthy investigation into the top-ranked small forward has dragged on for well over a month and has really hindered the Bruins' master plans.
Muhammad missed the team's exhibition trip to China last month, but that might be just the beginning. If the NCAA doesn't pick up the pace, the ultra-talented freshman could be forced out of preseason practices, which begin on Oct. 12.
At this point, it's difficult to predict UCLA's lineup for the unveiling of Pauley Pavilion on Nov. 9 against Indiana State. And while I doubt the Bruins will have much trouble dispatching the Sycamores, it would be a whole lot more fun if Shabazz and Kyle were at the party.
Who Will Run the Point?
Last season, the point guard position was one of the few areas of certainty for UCLA behind the stalwart play of do-it-all senior Lazeric Jones. But with Jones exhausting his eligibility and graduating, the Bruins find themselves searching frantically for a reliable replacement.
If Kyle Anderson is cleared by the NCAA, he will most certainly eat up major minutes as a point-forward, balancing his time dishing assists and finding his own shot. The 6'9", 235-pound youngster has a soft touch, great court vision and can find his way to the rim at will.
Anderson will be a superstar in Westwood, where offensive productivity has been suspect in recent years. However, if he is held out by the NCAA for any period of time, UCLA's outlook at the 1 will be a whole lot cloudier.
Next in line would be North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II, who had an up-and-down career with the Tar Heels before ultimately being usurped by freshman phenom Kendall Marshall. When Drew lost his starting role, he surprised the college basketball world by quitting without notice, a hasty decision that has drawn a crowd of critics for the 22-year-old from Encino.
Now donning the UCLA True Blue, Drew II has an opportunity to rectify his basketball career and disprove some of his detractors.
Regardless of whether Anderson can play or not, LD2 will have a lead role in the Bruin offense in 2012. He has great ball-handling skills and can find the open man, similar traits to his predecessor Jones. But Drew will need to improve his shot, as well as his free-throw percentage, in order to make a statement in his final year of NCAA eligibility.
One thing is for certain in the UCLA backcourt. Anderson and Drew II will have an arsenal of weapons around them to make buckets. All they have to do is make the pass!
Will the Frontcourt Finally Play Up to Its Potential?
If the Bruins are going to break out this season like many think they can, the frontcourt will have to become the dominant force it appears to be on paper.
Led by junior center Joshua Smith and the Twin Towers, 6'10" brothers David and Travis Wear, UCLA should have one of the best groups of big men in the country.
The Wears both had solid debut seasons for the Bruins, finishing first and second on the team in scoring, free-throw percentage and rebounding in 2011. And while there's no reason to believe they will falter this year, the North Carolina transfers will have to improve drastically in other areas of their game to really take things to the next level.
The Wear twins have been criticized for a lack of toughness on defense, often getting worked in the post-up game by more physical opponents. Also, they have an eerily similar tendency to disappear when things aren't going as scripted. If they can improve their defensive positioning and learn to handle adversity with poise, the pair of junior forwards could be a devastating duo for UCLA.
At the 5, things are equally unsettled. Sure, top-flight freshman Tony Parker will boost the talent level and depth, but the Bruins' hopes may lie in a more seasoned veteran.
Josh Smith was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school in 2010, but has shown only flashes of his monster potential. Listed at a modest 305 pounds, the soft-handed giant has an offensive skill set unrivaled by other bigs in college basketball.
Unfortunately, Smith has battled conditioning issues throughout his career and has been unable to stay on the floor long enough to have the kind of impact that UCLA fans expected. If he can carry his weight and run the floor with the talent-rich cast around him, Smith could become a household name and shoot up the NBA draft boards this season.
The UCLA frontcourt definitely has the talent, experience and depth to be a dominating presence in the Pac-12, but that potential won't win games on its own.
How Have Lamb and Powell Developed?
While the incoming freshmen steal the spotlight, a couple of elite recruits from yesteryear are preparing for the next chapter of their UCLA careers.
Junior Tyler Lamb has the ability to be a deadly scorer, evidenced by a career-high 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting against the defensive-minded Cal Bears last season. The Mater Dei product has a quick set of hands, capable of grabbing a crucial steal or making moves on the dribble-drive. But he needs some consistency to build his confidence, which has been shaken at times in the past.
Rising sophomore Norman Powell is a pure athlete and has impressed with huge plays on both ends of the floor. His game is still raw, but the innate ability is there in excess. Powell could be a defensive standout in the conference this season, as well as a threat to score in big, momentum-shifting fashion.
The play of Lamb and Powell could make or break the Bruins' season. They will both log serious time on the court and need to show the stability necessary of veterans on a team of young stars. So far, they have shown promise for the coming season.
On the team's recent exhibition trip to China, Powell scored 19 points, while Lamb posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 assists against Tsinghua University. And even though the Bruins' 116-68 victory was against admittedly weaker competition, the early success bodes well for the future.
The highlight of the trip for Lamb came against a Chinese professional squad, the Shanghai Sharks. In that matchup, Lamb tallied 15 points and a game-high six steals to spark the Bruins to a 92-63 victory.
Look for Lamb and Powell to emerge from the pack this season, leading UCLA's resurgence to the top of the PAC.
Can Howland Handle the Hype?
A recurring theme in sports media is the coach-speak construct of chemistry.
The ability of a team to humbly handle success and learn lessons from failure, all the while striving for the perfect balance of camaraderie and competition. The kind of enigmatic bond that makes a squad impervious to hype, homers and haters. And the X-factor that can transform a group of talented individuals from contenders into champions.
Chemistry is the all-encompassing intangible that every coach works for, and the ones that achieve it often end up on the fast track to limelight.
Entering his 10th season in Westwood, head coach Ben Howland finds himself in an interesting position, stuck between potential greatness and the proverbial hot seat.
On one hand, he has a top recruiting class that is comprised of the Nos. 2, 5, 26 and 41 players in the country (according to the ESPN 100). He also has a deep, experienced group of vets that are itching to get back on the court and prove themselves. And finally, Pauley Pavilion is on the verge of reopening after its $136 million renovation, complete with John Wooden memorial statue.
Suffice it to say, there are some serious expectations for Howland and the Bruins.
But on the other hand, there's also plenty of reason for caution. A recent history of underachieving, a harmful SI expose and a young team unsettled by NCAA eligibility issues are all harbingers of hard times to come. Howland will have to answer to a lot of critics, especially if the Bruins struggle to adjust to the national spotlight.
So while hope and excitement is rampant for UCLA in 2012, there is also an intense sense of urgency and scrutiny. Howland will certainly have his hands full trying to conquer the hype-monster that is the Los Angeles media. If he fails, not even his three straight Final Fours could save him from the wrath of Bruin Nation.