The UCLA Bruins' three-month conference grinder begins at home in Pauley Pavilion against Cal-Berkeley on January 3.
There are many elements, roadblocks and imperatives that UCLA must handle if it is going to compete for a Pac-12 championship.
This group of slides proposes to distill and simplify five facets the Bruins must focus on against the traditional rivals they must beat if they want an opportunity in March.
The slides are presented in no particular order.
The Pac-12, like many conferences, has been a champion's trial on the road. Teams at the top of the league have struggled to run the road gauntlet, and the worst teams have sold their home-court advantage at a heavy price.
The traditional Pac-10 round robin, which was a true 18-game league schedule with home and road games against every school, changed in 2011 with the addition of Colorado and Utah. That means that each season, every team will get spared either a home or road sequence against one pairing of schools.
For UCLA this season, they will get the Utes and Buffaloes on the road, but will not get either school at home. Utah has a weak team, but will be hard in that ambush zone in Salt Lake City. Colorado is a good team and will be a force to overcome in Boulder. These games could be keys and UCLA should win both.
The Bruins have traditionally struggled in the Bay Area against Stanford and Cal, in Eugene against Oregon and in Seattle for those sea side Huskies. Some of the Bruins' best two- and three-loss seasons have included losses in the Pacific Northwest. Tucson, too, has been hostile to the L.A. kids and will be again this season with Arizona the conference favorites.
UCLA's chances to win the conference will be built off the cornerstones of road success. If the Bruins get territorial and vicious outside of Los Angeles, their shot at a March feast will be within range.
This is the scariest part of everything UCLA has this season. Their run-outs at shooters and their rotations at the rim have not come together.
Too many teams have either dunked hard or had abundant time to line up shots at range. The Bruins allow nearly 70 points a game, and all that has saved them is scoring nearly 81 a game.
But, as every basketball fan knows, there will be games when the offense is hit by an arctic blast of cold and the defense will be all that stands between the Bruins and a loss they cannot afford to take.
There have been solid signs of improvement, and the effort by players on the defensive side is there. If UCLA continues to improve in the man-to-man and defends the rim like the keys to the castle, it will have an opportunity to roll hard in Pac-12 play.
There is one senior on the team, Larry Drew II, a very important—even indispensable—piece at the point.
There is experience in the frontcourt in the junior class Wear twins, but they are not interior defensive stoppers. The freshman Tony Parker looks like one of the last remaining players on the roster who will have a chance to affect the game from an athletic standpoint inside, both offensively and defensively.
The problem is that Parker, judging from the eight minutes a game he plays, has not proven himself enough in practice to merit time when it counts.
That leaves the bulk of the scoring and overall responsibility to the other three freshmen, Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. These young guns have all been potent and prolific in their own ways and look better every time they take the floor.
Even the best freshmen-led teams have faltered at crucial moments in the course of a season, and UCLA will need theirs to be lethal beyond their years for the next 12 weeks if the Bruins are going to approach the wire with a chance to trip it ahead of the pack.
If Tony Parker does not work his way into the rotation, the Bruins are going to face a barrage of bodies on the offensive and defensive windows.
David and Travis Wear have looked better than ever the last two preseason games, but they have a tendency to miss assignments and get brutalized by more burly players around the rim.
Kyle Anderson is 6'9'', but he has not put on college muscle and plays like a guard. Other men his size can have their way with him at the rim if Anderson's body positioning is not perfect.
The Bruins will have to develop in practice, in competition against each other and in games against implacable opponents if they are going to get the confrontational, battling mindset they will need to compete on the interior.
The Bruins need just flat-out confidence and cohesiveness, which with their talent will become swagger.
The team has looked like it is coming together over the last several weeks, and the core trio of Muhammad, Anderson and Adams appears to truly like one another. More importantly, the entire team appears to be playing for themselves and one another.
After the loss to Cal Poly SLO, there was a clear humiliation and public discussion about playing for the heritage of the UCLA across their chests. That seemed to be a pivotal point in the early part of the season.
There is enough scoring talent, and hopefully with heart and determination, enough on the defensive side to carry this squad through games. If this group plays with real pride in themselves alloyed with true pride in representing one of the premium brands in all of American basketball, the sky and the late rounds of the tournament are the limit for this team.