UCLA Basketball: The 5 Biggest Issues That Will Define the Bruins' Season
The hype is tremendous in Westwood right now. In addition to UCLA’s football team snapping a long streak of mediocrity, the Bruins acquired one of the best recruiting classes in college basketball and are off to smoldering start in the 2012-13 season.
There were bumps along the road, but the Bruins now have their full team in place with No. 1 recruit Shabazz Muhammad being cleared by the NCAA for eligibility this past week.
As UCLA looks forward to a much-hyped season, which they hope will culminate in a deep NCAA tournament berth, we now take a look at the most defining issues for this Bruins team that will either transform that hype into a roar or a murmur.
1. Frontcourt Production on Both Ends
Starting junior twin forwards David and Travis Wear will be crucial to UCLA’s success this season.
Merely looking at last year’s numbers for the Wear brothers (David: 10.2 PPG 6.3 RPG; Travis: 11.5 PPG 5.9 RPG), you’d think that they were key contributors to the team. Their numbers this season might suggest the same thing.
However, the Wear twins were not all they were hyped to be last season. Although they put up decent offensive numbers, they weren’t at the physical level that is required in college basketball.
On the other end of the spectrum is Joshua Smith, who is too physical and doesn’t possess the requisite body control to be an effective player due to his poor physical shape.
Competing for playing time off the bench with freshman center Tony Parker may encourage Smith to get himself into proper physical condition, but for the time being, his fitness is a detriment to the team when the Wear twins are subbed out.
Coach Ben Howland has enacted a three-guard set due to the prevalence of strong guard play on the team this year, so the frontcourt will play a less of role this season. However, the forwards that are in the game will need to be effective in order for UCLA’s guards to flourish.
2. Shabazz Living Up to the Hype
As the No. 1 (or No. 2 behind Nerlens Noel, depending on the ranker) recruit in the nation for the freshman class, the hype surrounding Shabazz Muhammad has been unrivaled for years in Westwood.
Now that the highly-acclaimed high school superstar has cleared NCAA eligibility and can play for the Bruins, his ability to perform and “walk the walk” is vital to UCLA’s success this season.
If he is all he’s hyped to be, Muhammad will help lead the Bruins to their first Pac-12 title in four years. If not, UCLA may have just another mediocre season as it has the past few years.
3. Point Guard Leadership
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It’s been a while since the Bruins can say they’ve had a point guard that can facilitate and score on a game-to-game basis.
The now-graduated Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson were decent, but didn’t bring the intangibles that a great point guard can bring. They were both effective facilitators but lacked in scoring.
While North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II is now carrying the ball up the court for UCLA, it’s uncertain if he’ll be the Bruins’ starting point guard for the duration of the season with freshman Kyle Anderson on his heels.
Regardless of who mans the 1 for the Bruins, they’ll need a leader to organize their offense. Be it Drew or one of the freshmen guards, they must also have scoring capabilities in addition to facilitating skills in order to keep opposing defenses spread out.
4. Collaborative Defense
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Ben Howland’s defensive-minded approach to coaching appeared ineffective the past few seasons. While there were spurts of average defensive play, the Bruins looked sluggish on defense and have fell apart against talented teams like Cal and Arizona last season.
In order for a defensive system to succeed, players must buy into the system and possess the requisite confidence in order to trust each other. So far, the top-recruit freshmen have exhibited solid defense, but the continuity of the defensive system will be determined once conference play is underway in January.
The most commonly uttered words by coaches and players are “Defense wins championships,” and it’s no lie—the Bruins will have no Pac-12 or NCAA title to speak of without effective collaborative defense.
5. Success against Ranked Opponents
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In order to be considered the best and earn themselves a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins must beat ranked opponents, especially those outside of the Pac-12 like San Diego State and Missouri.
That UCLA struggled against tough unranked Big East opponent Georgetown isn’t too concerning, but it was certainly a test to the Bruins’ competitiveness against ranked opponents, as Georgetown will see its fair share in the Top 25 this season.
It was the newly-eligible Shabazz Muhammad’s first college game in addition to the Bruins still working out early-season kinks and forming as a cohesive unit, so their loss against Georgetown isn’t indicative of how they will perform against tough opponents as the season progresses.
However, when the Bruins take on currently ranked No. 25 San Diego State, No. 13 Missouri and Top 30-ranked Texas, it is crucial that they prove themselves to the nation by winning these games.
Just as important to UCLA establishing itself on the national radar are its Pac-12 conference games against currently ranked No. 10 Arizona, who is boasting a strong recruiting class as well under coach Sean Miller.