UCLA Basketball: Full Preview, Predictions and Storylines for 2012-13

Tim KeeneyContributor INovember 7, 2012

UCLA Basketball: Full Preview, Predictions and Storylines for 2012-13

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    Say hello to Ben Howland and the UCLA Bruins, or, as they're known around these parts, the Kentucky of the West. 

    OK, the similarities between these two programs, outside of the fact they have both been college basketball powerhouses since pretty much the beginning of time, don't run very deep. But if any school is going to make the type of youth-powered run to a national championship like UK did last year, it will be UCLA.

    Although, unlike the Wildcats, the success of the Bruins this year is going to come a little bit out of nowhere. 

    After three straight Final Four appearances from 2006 through 2008, Ben Howland's squad saw a steep drop off thanks to the NBA's talent-stealing ways. 

    The Bruins entered the 08-09 season ranked No. 4, but were ousted in the second round. The next year, they won just 14 games and failed to dance in March. In 2010-11, another exit before the Sweet 16. Last year, despite being ranked No. 17 in the preseason, the Bruins once again missed the NCAA tournament. 

    A respectable amount of returning talent coupled with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, which features two can't-miss 5-stars and three top-100 ESPN recruits, is a decent way to turn around those struggles.

    You know, if you're into the whole "endless amount of gifted players" thing. 

    Let's take a look at what's in store for the No. 13 Bruins as the attempt to return to the ol' glory days of five years ago. 

Impact Newcomers

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    G Jordan Adams (Freshman)

    G/F Kyle Anderson (Freshman)

    PG Larry Drew II (Transfer)

    C Adria Gasol (Freshman)

    SG/SF Shabazz Muhammad (Freshman)

    PF/C Tony Parker (Freshman)

     

    The potential for one of the best classes in recent memory is here, but it all hinges on Shabazz Muhammad. 

    The 6'6", 215-pound stud is, according to ESPN, the second-ranked player in the class of 2012. The lefty is strong, he's athletic, he's competitive, he has a motor and energy that doesn't stop, he's unstoppable going to the hoop and in transition. Basically, he's this year's version of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

    But there's a "but."

    Muhammad, an easy future lottery pick, is currently being investigated by the NCAA, and it's unclear when—or if—he'll be cleared to play. If he is allowed to step on the court, the dynamic wing is a good bet to be one of the best collegiate players in the country. If not, well, bad things. 

    Luckily enough, there are a couple other newcomers.

    Freshman Kyle Anderson is one of the most unique players in the country. He has the body (6'9", 235 pounds, 7'2" wingspan) of a small forward, the face of a 12-year-old and the game of a heady point guard. 

    The No. 5 recruit in the nation always seems to be playing in slow motion. Although not overly athletic or quick, he has good moves that allow him to get into the paint. Once there, he has constantly shown a high basketball IQ both in his finishing and in his ability to dump the ball to a teammate. 

    Anderson will play the 1, 2 and 3 for Ben Howland this season, and he'll likely play them all with superb efficiency. 

    Larry Drew II is a former elite recruit who never showed his potential at North Carolina and eventually sulked his way out of Chapel Hill after being replaced by Kendall Marshall. Still, he's a true point guard and has the potential to be a solid floor general if he has his head on right. 

    Tony Parker, although raw, is a force inside who can score in the post. 

    Jordan Adams is flying under the radar when it comes to this freshman class, but he's someone who will be able to shoot and fill it up off the bench. 

    Finally, Adria Gasol, Marc and Pau's little brother, brings the bloodline intrigue as a walk-on, although he likely won't' contribute much. 

Key Losses

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    G Jerime Anderson (Graduated): 8.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 spg

    G Lazeric Jones (Graduated): 13.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.8 spg

     

    Veteran guards are always valuable come March, and UCLA loses two good ones in Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones. 

    Both were similar, versatile players. 

    They could handle the ball, they could distribute without really turning the ball over (although Anderson was better in that regard), they could play off the ball and knock down the three-pointer, they played scrappy defense and constantly forced teams into turnovers. 

    In essence, they were the typical glue seniors who didn't have over-the-top talent, but did all the little things to win, although there were also plenty of times when Jones took over.

    The Bruins have the talent to replace Anderson and Jones, but they aren't easy to say goodbye to. 

Projected Lineup and Depth Chart

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    For now, I'll slot Shabazz Muhammad into the shooting guard position, but be prepared—I'm sure Ben Howland certainly is—to have to go a different direction.

    You don't exactly replace someone like Muhammad. There's not some farm somewhere with little Shabazz's popping up everywhere. He's a unique talent, and it will be a monumental loss if he can't suit up.

    There's no hiding that.

    But Ben Howland has the versatility to at least make due without the budding star. 

    There are certainly question marks surrounding Larry Drew II and how he'll fare compared to his atrocious career with the Tar Heels, but I'll say it again: Howland has options if Drew doesn't work out. 

    Kyle Anderson is just a point guard in a big man's body, and he can run the show for as long as he needs. He might be susceptible on the defensive end in that situation, but veteran Tyler Lamb, who would step into the 2 without Muhammad, is an elite defender capable of guarding opposing point guards (fantastic quickness, 1.7 steals per game last season). 

    Powell is the same way. He's only 6'3", but he's strong, quick and incredibly athletic. Defense is probably his calling card, as he can man up on point guards or any of the wing positions. 

    Throw in Jordan Adams, who has the offensive game to play the 2 or 3, and Howland can make everything work. It's a giant, revolving backcourt puzzle, and it might take a while to find the right rotation, but having options is a good thing.

    The versatility continues in the frontcourt.  

    The Wear twins are big, but they can stretch defenses with their ability to knock down the mid-range and sometimes three-point jumper. Backing them up are two big boys in Josh Smith (and I mean big) and Tony Parker.

    There are concerns. No one knows how in shape the 305-pound Smith really is and the true freshman Parker is still raw, but the options for different frontcourt playing styles are certainly there. 

     

    Position Starter Backup
    Point Guard Larry Drew II Kyle Anderson/Tyler Lamb
    Shooting Guard Shabazz Muhammad Tyler Lamb/Norman Powell
    Small Forward Kyle Anderson Jordan Adams
    Power Forward David Wear Tony Parker
    Center Travis Wear Josh Smith

Strengths

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    You'd be hard-pressed to find something this team doesn't have.

    A veteran true point guard? Larry Drew II will do. A freaking 6'9" small forward who can also be a floor general when needed? Kyle Anderson's got you covered. 

    How about an athletic freak who's essentially unstoppable if you let him put the ball on the ground? Say hello to Shabazz Muhammad, maybe. 

    What about veteran guards with plenty of experience who will come off the bench, guard any position and score if needed? Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell will suffice. What about the all-important guy to come off the pine and knock down threes in a hurry? Don't worry, Jordan Adams is around here somewhere.

    Big twins who can stretch the floor? Travis Wear and David Wear. Big guys who can bang down low, win cheeseburger-eating contests and hold ridiculously long press conferences? Boom, Josh Smith and Tony Parker. 

    There may be some doubt surrounding this team because of the Muhammad situation, but it has depth. It has versatility. It has guys who can get to the rack with athleticism. It has guys who can play suffocating on-ball defense. It has size. It has experience. It has an injection of youth and excitement. 

    I'm sure a few of those traits might come in handy at some point this season. 

Weaknesses

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    I'm not exactly sure where this team will go for consistent outside shooting.

    The Bruins' best returning shooters are Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell, who both shot right around 35 percent from long range last year. The Wear twins knocked down their treys at a better clip, but hit just 17 total. 

    Although Lamb improved greatly last season, there's not exactly someone in that group you can rely on for constant production from the outside.

    Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson do a lot of things, but they don't fix that problem. Jordan Adams is a terrific shooter, but it's unclear how many minutes he'll get and there's always the potential for freshmen struggles.

    This could end up being a problem if the Bruins run into a team that plays an effective zone or gets hot itself on the other end. 

    Additionally, the frontcourt depth has to be seen as a weakness.

    The potential for greatness is there, especially if Parker and Smith live up to expectations, but the potential for a lot of headaches is also incredibly high.

    If Parker doesn't make an immediate impact or Smith continues to be out of shape, I'm not so sure the Wear twins are the type of players who can carry the frontcourt for an extended period. 

Storylines to Watch

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    Shabazz, Shabazz, Shabazz

    You know the deal by now. If Muhammad is forced to sit out, the Bruins are still a Top 25 team. If he gets to play, however, they are a legitimate title contender.

    Yes, he's one of those freshmen. 

    The NCAA has to make a decision one of these days, so be sure to keep an ear out for it, as it is sure to have a bigger impact on this season than any other story. 

     

    Pauley Want an Arena?

    Go ahead and tell Duke or North Carolina fans that home-court advantage doesn't matter.

    The Bruins might not get that type of crazed support, but with the new Pauley Pavilion, they are going to come close. 

    A $136-million renovation has not only improved the look, new-age feel and shininess of the arena, but it's added 1,000 seats and has put fans closer to the action. More fans plus closer fans will equal more noise, which should only improve UCLA's play at home, where it was already pretty solid. 

    In case you were wondering, the new stadium gets it debut on November 9, when the Bruins host Indiana State. 

Best-Case Scenario

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    A national championship. 

    It's looking more and more like Shabazz Muhammad missing some regular season games is inevitable, but if the Bruins are lucky, the dynamic wing will only get a small suspension, similar to what Indiana's Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera-Perea got.

    If that happens, Muhammad will be back for conference play and the Bruins will have plenty of time to integrate him into the offense.

    From there, his worth is obvious.

    He gives the Bruins more athleticism, more driving ability, more reason to get out and run, more versatility, more depth, more defensive intensity, more of that special "winning" gene that pundits are always drooling over.

    Muhammad is a special talent who's capable of carrying any team a long way in March. Put him on an already-stacked Bruins squad, and the Georgia Dome is the limit. 

Worst-Case Scenario

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    Um, so go back to that last slide and picture the exact opposite. 

    If Muhammad is forced to miss the entire season, the Bruins lose an integral aspect of their offense. 

    Kyle Anderson is a unique talent, yes, but maybe his lack of athleticism and quickness will hurt him at the collegiate level. Larry Drew II is a huge risk considering how he left Chapel Hill, and that's not usually a good thing for your starting point guard. 

    If Muhammad is out of the lineup, and those newcomers don't quite pan out like everyone is hoping, a lot of pressure suddenly falls on Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell in the backcourt.

    We already know what those two provide, and while it's certainly nothing bad, it's not national-championship level talent. 

    Still, with all of the pieces in place, even without Muhammad, the floor for this team is an early-round departure (via upset, mind you) in the NCAA tourney.

Regular Season Prediction

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    25-7 (14-4 Pac-12), First in Pac-12

     

    This is obviously a tough prediction to make with Shabazz Muhammad's status currently up in the air. For now, I'm going to operate under the notion that he misses a good chunk of pre-conference play but is back in time for the Pac-12. 

    And if I'm wrong, or if UCLA's record is anything other than 25-7, I get the right to change my prediction. 

    The Bruins have a bunch of tough early tests with Georgetown and possibly Indiana in the Legends Classic, San Diego State in the John Wooden Classic, Texas and Missouri. Don't be surprised if they struggle in those games. 

    However, if Muhammad comes back, I fully expect this stacked Bruins team to run through the conference. 

    The Pac-12 is quickly improving from what I call the lost years. Arizona is emerging as a national title contender, Stanford, California and Colorado are much improved and Washington is always tough. 

    Still though, at full strength, UCLA is going to be tough to beat.