Last season, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.
On one hand, the team won the Pac-12 Championship with a corps of freshmen, a couple of juniors and one senior.
On the other hand, the negativity toward the head coach fixed a drain beneath the entire campaign, which never allowed you to see the high water marks without feeling the strong suction from below. It never was much fun.
Then, the team magically played itself into the Pac-12 Tournament championship game but lost its best player beforehand and fell to Oregon in a dark foreshadowing of an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
The old coach was fired, and a new coach was hired. And many people were not happy about the new coach.
But many good players are back, and the team is defending conference champions under a new coaching regime that has once more put the season into the balance to see how it measures out. This is a skeleton preview of what dreams may come for the 2013-2014 UCLA basketball campaign.
Zach LaVine committed to UCLA because he respected former coach Ben Howland for getting great guards into the NBA. He honored his commitment because he respects the program and wants to wear the four letters across his chest during the college days.
He had a fine high school pedigree and was named Washington's Mr. Basketball senior year. He's a lengthy sky-walker and one of the nation's best prep level attacking guards. He also showed excellent range on the jump shot but, like many players, could use more proficiency in the middle-range.
He talks about himself as a shoot-first point guard but does not mind facilitating the basketball to teammates. In interviews he seems humble, deadly serious about basketball and someone who wants to be coached by people who know their trade.
"What I bring is a scorer, athletic, can dribble. I do whatever the coach needs me to do," said LaVine to Inside SoCal.
He has a confident, killer's scoring mind set, and with new freedom of movement officiating in the college game, he could be spectacular. He said he tested out a 47-inch vertical jump, which at a long-armed 6'4", makes him a human condor swooping in from above.
If LaVine is ready to ride—obviously a two-way street with defense under Alford—he could end up one of the nation's most productive freshman contributors.
UCLA's backcourt is solid, maybe even efficient and productive enough to carry some games, but depth is not there yet. Beyond Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell—two sophomores and a junior, respectively—there is little experience.
Bryce Alford running the point position efficiently with few turnovers, and facilitating to scorers is going to be critical to this team. Alford was Gatorade Player of the Year in New Mexico, scoring nearly 40 points a game to go with 8.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists.
Immediately, class of competition must be questioned when a 6'3" guard with mid-level athleticism lights up the scoreboard like that and registered more rebounds than assists. Alford will not play that way in college.
This is a tough one to evaluate because he is the coach's son, and it's hard to imagine he ends up at UCLA if the circumstance is more wide open. He certainly has a lot to prove, and outsiders like your columnist questioning whether he is on the roster because of nepotism might put a big proverbial chip on his shoulder.
Alford has a tremendous opportunity to prove he belongs in the Pac-12's flagship basketball program and will have chance to demonstrably contribute to the team's success if he can run the position skillfully. He'll be watched closely without a doubt.
When he is back from a knee injury, Wanaah Bail could provide force inside. UCLA will need him against perennial preseason conference favorite Arizona which, if it has anything, it is an imposing front line.
A rock solid, 6'9" physical beast who could potentially affect games. He may not contribute much at all during his freshman year. All is up in the air here, too.
Tony Parker not committing a foul.
Anderson is a "gumby" stretch man with a lot of skills. He plays a unique "slow-mo" style that is miraculously, but consistently, effective in all courts.
Versatility last year improved the team in so many ways. He was smart to return to school because he's not yet ready for professional basketball. He has a swagger and self-belief dedicated toward team goals that inspires teammates in practice and most in games. He hates to lose more than most.
He plays hard with competitor's sickening desperation to win, and he's smart to know what in his game has to be improved.
When Anderson gets going, he can rebound, trigger fast breaks and assist on goals. He handles the ball beautifully, has wonderful court vision and plays with passion and love of the game that is demonstrably evident.
Anderson can anchor the backcourt and enhance the frontcourt. He's an absolutely essential piece to UCLA's season.
Jordan Adams was one of best freshman surprises I can remember in college basketball. He came out of the box smoothly and was polished offensively with a velvety touch.
Adams is natural scorer with a wonderful release on his shot and understands angles when attacking the basket to compensate for moderate explosive athleticism. He is also, sneakily, one of the most disruptive defenders on the team, regularly pilfering opponents possessions and generating extra scoring opportunities for the Bruins.
Adams was probably the team's best, most critical player when hurt in Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, and his absence—because of severe drought in depth—just about doomed UCLA in the NCAA Tournament.
Originally a great high school player out of Oak Hill Academy with a winner's mentality and understanding of the game, Adams is a team player who will do whatever it takes to advance the unit, whether it is his personal statistics or establishing teammates.
A healthy, productive Adams—not purely his production but his swagger, which matches Anderson's—is integral to the Bruins' 2013 prospects.
The hope is that Parker can be a force more than both David Wear and Travis Wear inside. The Wear brothers are nice finesse players and may have in their senior seasons accumulated the weight in muscle to bang around underneath the basket, but that is no certainty.
UCLA was the Pac-12's worst rebounding team by margin last year at minus-1.6 per game. There were many times it broke their transition rhythm after fine defensive possessions and without doubt allowed opponents to score critical points that made the difference between victory and defeat.
Tony Parker has actually lost about 20 pounds over the offseason, but he still plunges the scale at a powerful 255 pounds amassed over a 6'9" frame.
The Bruins must have this svelte Parker rebounding both ends. The increased mobility should make it easier for him to stay out of foul danger—a serious problem last season—and to run hard in transition, where Anderson will reward him.
Parker's second year in Westwood, apparently reborn under the new coaching staff and a new opportunity, is enormously important to this team. With him inside, giving the Bruins respectable front court depth—whether Wanaah Bail is ready to contribute this season or not—this team is equipped to battle at the top of the league.
UCLA's 2013-2014 roster is here.
The rotation is just a projection based on preseason minutes and last season's rotations. There is no particular order, but these players will dominate the minutes. Kyle Anderson will move positions and play a hybrid role depending on the matchup and game tempo circumstances. There are enough adjustable cogs to slip into the machine that UCLA will avoid being calcified into specific, immovable postures. Wanaah Bail, at least for now, is a mystery.
Kyle Anderson (G)
Jordan Adams (G)
Norman Powell (G)
Travis Wear (F)
Tony Parker (F, C)
Zach LaVine (G)
David Wear (F)
Bryce Alford (G)
Noah Allen (G)
Wanaah Bail (F)
For all the reasons mentioned before, Tony Parker is an X-factor. There is some frontcourt depth in the conference, especially in Tucson, that will have to be effectively deployed against to win the Pac-12.
Parker will get his chance to prove his hard work this offseason was not simply activity, but activity with achievement, as Coach Wooden liked to say
UCLA cannot spend another year being punished on the offensive and defensive windows if it wants to win its 38th conference championship and its first repeat title since three straight from 2006-2008. Parker will have a lot to do with establishing the Bruins' physical character inside.
It is his third year in the program, and he has worked hard under sometimes difficult circumstances. Norman Powell is an X-factor because for one, he has earned a mention in the season preview, and two, it is a legitimate label.
When he comes into a game with confidence, Powell has a way of setting a tone. He is an athletic, physical specimen despite not overwhelming size, and he has a way of igniting the rocket end of a run with rim-rattling dunks and dagger deep shots.
Take this dunk against Oregon last year as a paradigm.
Same for this one over Arizona.
Powell has also shown a willingness to get in an opponents face defensively and change the rhythm and tone on that end of the floor, which can change the outcome of a game.
My personal feeling is that besides Tony Parker, Powell was the next most refreshed player on this team to get a chance under a new coaching staff. I believe Powell will change the negative tenor of multiple games this year to UCLA's favor.
The best case for this team is repeat regular season champions and conference tournament champions. Last year's loss in the Pac-12 Tournament championship left an ugly taste and foreshadowed the tournament debacle without Jordan Adams in the lineup.
The conference sweep, which would likely lead to a No. 3 seed or higher in the NCAA Tournament, would position the Bruins for a deep run depending—as always—on the matchups within their bracket. There is something about this group—with new coach Steve Alford, a great competitor no matter what else might be said about him—and with three of four of the nation's top recruiting class last year back, it feels like something special could happen.
Added to last year's group, there is a special talent in Zach LaVine. There is a workhorse practice player who will find time in the system in Noah Allen and the unexpected grab of Wanaah Bail from Texas Tech before the season. There could be something of sufficient skill and swagger congealing in the closed sessions beneath the banners at Pauley Pavilion to carry UCLA its way to the top of the league again.
The worst-case scenario is this team finishes below third place in the conference, more than two games off the pace and bows early from the conference tournament. If the team then received a low seed in the NCAA Tournament and went out the first weekend, with several players surely moving on with their careers afterward, it would be a broken spar christening of the Alford era.
Worse than that would be to miss the tournament altogether. But fortunately for Alford, former coach Ben Howland left a stable of good, experienced material behind for him to reshape, and a few rookies to break-in. It is nothing like the scattered wreckage Howland was left to reassemble when Steven Lavin was fired in 2003. Missing the tournament outright is not a true fear in any sane person's head.
UCLA, in my opinion, should defend its regular season conference championship. Obviously, it will be difficult. A second-place finish to Arizona would not be a shame, so long as competition was tight. Third place behind Arizona and Oregon would be tough to stomach.
A worse finish than that, barring catastrophic injury, would be a major disappointment for the program given the talent on the roster.
In the Pac-12 Tournament, it is difficult to play the same teams a third time around, but as a tune-up, I like it for the NCAA Tournament. Conference tournaments have proven again and again to mean nothing, but they have also slingshotted teams deep into the postseason. Both UConn and Louisville won National Championships in 2011 and 2013, respectively, after catching fire in Madison Square Garden.
I know UCLA is good enough to win the Pac-12 Tournament, but will they have the swagger and heat at the right time to run the gauntlet?
The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups, as everyone knows. If UCLA has favorable matchups, they could, with steady nerves and consistent execution for 40 minutes a fight, go far. If a matchup is unfavorable, or if either the defense is absent or the offense cannot put it through the hoop, their hopes could end quickly.
In short, it is nearly impossible to project the NCAA Tournament. It is easy to see UCLA playing into the second weekend and, with luck, beyond. It is also not hard to imagine the team, depending on injuries and opponents, taking a long and painful plane ride back to Westwood to figure out what all went wrong.