After the UCLA Bruins capped off nonconference play and 2012 with a thrilling overtime win over No. 7 Missouri, they now face a new year with new challenges ahead as Pac-12 conference play tips off on Thursday.
It’s been a season of extreme highs and lows so far for the Bruins, marred by a shocking loss to Cal Poly and most recently brightened with a key win over a tough Missouri squad.
Heading into conference play with momentum chugging them along, it appears as though the Bruins may finally be on course to realize the potential that had them ranked high in the preseason Top 25.
Nevertheless, UCLA has consistently defied expectations, for better or worse, this season, which makes any forecast for this team at the will of the wind.
With such uncertainty in the air, here are five bold predictions for UCLA as they enter Pac-12 play.
It seems like a given that UCLA should perform well in the Pac-12 regardless of the venue, but UCLA has yet to notch a quality road win this season and may struggle to perform in arenas other than Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins split two neutral-site games early in the season in the Legends Classic in the Barclays Center and won a sloppy road game against Texas that was technically played at a neutral site at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
This UCLA team is very young and inexperienced with freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams leading the way, which may prove a weakness for the team in intense conference road games.
The relative strength of Pac-12 opposition this year also poses a threat to the team, but above all, the Bruins will emerge as one of the best teams in the conference and will be able to prevail in tough road games.
UCLA’s display of resiliency in its big win over Missouri proved that this team is capable of maintaining focus and upholding perspective, which will be vital for the team approaching tough Pac-12 road games against teams like Arizona, Cal and Oregon.
Since joining UCLA on the court after being cleared by the NCAA, Shabazz Muhammad has had a tremendous impact on the team.
While he, like all freshmen, has had his share of freshman follies and is still refining his acclimation to college basketball, the 6’6” forward has positioned himself at the top of all Pac-12 players in the 10 games in which he’s played.
While Muhammad could share the ball more and improve his atrocious .45 assist-turnover ratio, he has been a huge force for UCLA this season and has proved to be a clutch player.
In all of his games in a Bruins jersey, Muhammad has scored at least 13 points (19.6 PPG) and is sporting back-to-back 27-point performances.
As the season continues, he will only excel as a player and will be able to harness his raw, explosive power and become one of the best players the Pac-12 has seen in years.
Muhammad has some competition from the likes of Arizona State’s Jahii Carson, Colorado’s Andre Roberson, Cal’s Allen Crabbe and Washington State’s Brock Motum; however, when the dust has settled in the Pac-12, Shabazz will exceed the competition and be anointed as the best player in the conference.
Considering the previous slide, it may seem paradoxical to predict that Muhammad will be the Pac-12 Player of the Year and yet Jordan Adams will be the best player on UCLA.
Nevertheless, if you’ve watched the Bruins play this season, you understand how these seeming logical inconsistencies can coexist.
Muhammad will undoubtedly be the one that garners all the attention from the media after being the No. 1 recruit of this year’s freshmen class. He’ll be the talk of the sports world as a high NBA draft pick and is trending toward Pac-12 Player of the Year, but he’s not the best player on the team—Adams is.
Not only is he an excellent shooter from the perimeter but he also craftily attacks the basket and is a tough defender. At 17.7 points per game, he has consistently delivered for the Bruins, especially in crucial late-game situations.
The 6’5” guard sets the tone for this Bruins team with his confident, accurate shooting and possesses the greatest work ethic on the team.
The combination of his humility and being overshadowed by higher-ranked recruits Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson will always see Adams underrated, but he will be—as he has been the entire season—UCLA’s best all-around player.
As the No. 5 recruit in this year’s college basketball freshman class, there was plenty of hype surrounding 6’9” guard Kyle Anderson coming into this season; however, that hype has greatly diminished after watching him play so far at the college level.
Anderson is an above-average player and exhibits some incredible skill on the court at times, but he doesn’t consistently make smart decisions on the court. His nickname of “Slow-Mo” has taken on a stigma rather than a charm.
Averaging over eight points and eight rebounds per game, he has had some impressive performances so far as a Bruin, but he has been inconsistent and has proved physically outmatched by tougher opponents.
This is not to say that Anderson won’t ever become a great player—because he does reserve limitless potential if he continues to develop—but he won’t be an instant success at UCLA.
Simply, it’s just not happening for him this year.
After turning a corner by beating Missouri, UCLA has the momentum that it needs to take on tough Pac-12 teams like No. 3 Arizona.
Although the Pac-12 is undeniably the weakest conference of the Big Six, it has significantly improved this year and won’t be an easy conference to win.
The Bruins have a shot to top the conference if they can overcome a very talented Arizona team in their head-to-head matchups, but the Wildcats should win their 13th Pac-12 title this season.
It won’t be an easy ride for UCLA, as Arizona isn’t the only team capable of beating the Bruins. Nearly every team in the Pac-12 this year will give this team a run for its money for a high slot in the conference standings.
However, led by Muhammad and Adams, the Bruins will finish runner-up in the Pac-12 regular season.