UCLA Basketball: 10 Must-Win Games of the 2012-2013 Season
After several years of middling success, the time appears ripe for UCLA basketball to assert itself back into the mix of elite teams.
A batch of highly-rated recruits joins a group of talented returning starters on Ben Howland's team.
Despite an injury to guard Tyler Lamb (as reported by Peter Yoon of ESPN Los Angeles) that will leave the Bruins without much experience in the backcourt to begin the season, this is the most talent UCLA has had on its sidelines in awhile.
Questions surround the eligibility of highly-rated recruits Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammed (as reported by Jenny Cohen). But Anderson may be cleared to play within a week, according to Adam Zagoria of Zagsblog, and if the talented duo ends up on the court, UCLA will likely be a contender to win it all.
But with their statuses up in the air at the moment, UCLA will rely heavily on returning forwards Travis and David Wear, who both shoot the ball extremely well. C Josh Smith also returns to a frontcourt that will welcome in freshman Tony Parker, another high school standout.
UCLA has the best collection of big men in the conference, and it's a group that should only get stronger as the young talent develops. If UNC transfer Larry Drew II can hold things down in the backcourt until Lamb gets back, the Bruins will be in great position as they hit the meat of their schedule.
While it's hard to call any game a must-win at this point, here are 10 games that will go a long way in determining just how special this Bruins team can be.
1. Georgetown, Nov. 19
The first road game for UCLA is against the Georgetown Hoyas, a team that finished tied for fourth last year in the always rugged Big East.
The hostile environment will provide a huge challenge for a Bruins team looking to make an early statement away from home.
A win would set the tone for the Bruins' season and give them a quality non-conference victory.
2. San Diego State, Dec. 1
The San Diego State Aztecs make their way to Los Angeles on Dec. 1 in an important early-season matchup for both teams.
The Aztecs' leading scorer, Jamaal Franklin, returns to a team coming off its third straight trip to the NCAA tournament. SDSU has proven itself before in these kind of games, winning at Arizona last season.
The Bruins will be favored in this one. But the Aztecs don't play these games to earn a check for the school. They'll be looking to return home with a victory.
3. Texas, Dec. 8
In a game sure to have plenty of hype, the Bruins will take on the Texas Longhorns in early December.
This will be the second major road test for Ben Howland's squad. They'll be facing a Texas team coming off a 20-13 season and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Longhorns are led by sophomore guard Sheldon McClellan, who was the team's second-leading scorer a season ago.
A win in this one would be a major statement for the Bruins, who could be in for a shootout against Rick Barnes' high-scoring team.
4. Long Beach State, Dec. 18
The Long Beach State 49ers will take on the Bruins in mid-December. They are a high-scoring team coming off an NCAA tournament appearance.
Although Long Beach State lost its top two scorers from last season, they are known for giving power conference teams all they can handle.
Last season, they won at Pittsburgh, and were within ten points against both Kansas and North Carolina.
The Bruins must be careful in this one. A loss would hurt their out-of-conference resume and take away any momentum they might have gained from earlier victories.
5. Missouri, Dec. 28
In the last game before starting conference play, the Bruins take on the Missouri Tigers.
The Tigers are coming off a successful season in which they earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament before getting upset early.
They are led by one of best guards in the country, Phil Pressey. They also welcome in UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi, a tough competitor in the paint.
Despite losing guard Marcus Denmon, this is a Missouri squad that knows what it takes to win in big games and in tough environments. A win here would be perfect for the Bruins as they head into the Pac-12 schedule.
6. California, Jan. 3
The Bruins open up conference play against the California Golden Bears, who are coming off a 24-win season and an NCAA tournament appearance.
The Bears bring toughness to the game, and are led by guard Allen Crabbe, who grabbed nearly six rebounds a game last season.
UCLA will likely be favored in this game, but both teams will be looking to jump out to a 1-0 record in conference play. Cal plays everybody hard, and the Bruins will need to be ready for this one.
7. Oregon, Jan. 19
The Oregon Ducks were a surprise team last season under coach Dana Altman.
The Bruins welcome the Ducks to Pauley Pavilion in mid-January for the only regular season game between the two teams.
The Ducks will provide a physical challenge inside. They are led by center Tony Woods and forward E.J. Singler, the younger brother of former Duke standout Kyle Singler.
UCLA lost at Matthew Knight Arena last year and will be looking to return the favor this season.
8. Arizona, Jan. 24
Following Oregon's visit, the Bruins head to Tuscon to take on the Arizona Wildcats.
In a game that's sure to have major implications in the Pac-12 standings, UCLA faces a 'Zona team coming off a mediocre (by their lofty standards) 23-11 season.
The Wildcats boast an impressive recruiting class of their own, and will be one of the few teams that can match talent with the Bruins.
The game will provide a stiff road test for UCLA, who, at this point, will know a lot about themselves. Will they be able to handle the hostile environment?
9. Stanford, Feb. 16
The Stanford Cardinal enter the 2012-2013 season coming off an NIT championship, and they're looking to build off it.
They are led by underrated point guard Aaron Bright, an excellent distributor who can light it up from long range. The team as a whole can shoot the ball extremely well.
UCLA will be forced to defend the perimeter, and doing so could mean the difference in this one.
This is a major road test coming down the stretch.
10. Washington, March 9
The Bruins travel to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies in their final regular season game.
The Huskies are defending conference champions led by talented guard Abdul Gaddy. Despite losing Tony Wroten and Terrance Ross to the NBA, the Dawgs will be a contender in the Pac-12 once again.
This game is crucial as UCLA heads into the conference tournament the following week. A win secures momentum, while a loss could carry into the postseason.