After a season in which the UCLA Bruins basketball program played like the Washington Generals—the clownish patsies of the Harlem Globetrotters—at times, one thought permeated my mind as they enter their 92nd campaign:
It can't get much worse.
The college basketball publications apparently feel the same way, as most of them have picked the Bruins to finish third in the Pacific-10 Conference; The Sporting News picked UCLA to finish second.
Head coach Ben Howland, in his eighth season in Westwood, is determined to change his team's fortunes after going 14-18 last year with a record of 8-10 in the Pac-10.
To that end, he brought in a top-notch recruiting class that includes Josh Smith, a 6'10", 305-pound center who is expected to provide a much-needed presence in the middle, and Lazeric Jones, a junior college transfer expected to be an upgrade at point guard, a position that was a liability and a prominent reason why the Bruins struggled in 2009-2010.
The team shooting 63 percent from the free-throw line was also a big factor in their overall futility; that's an area that also has to improve.
Despite last season's disappointment, there are some key returning players with an upside who should help UCLA get back on track.
Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt top that list at forward. They are the team's top two rebounders and their points per game average, 11.1 for Nelson and 7.2 for Honeycutt, will only get better with the experience that they gained last year.
With Josh Smith, Nelson and Honeycutt will make a formidable front line, which will undoubtedly help UCLA's rebounding.
Malcolm Lee also has an upside at guard. He is the Bruins' top returning scorer at 12 points a game, and should complement Jones well in the backcourt.
Jerime Anderson, after struggling at the point last year, is expected to come off the bench. A more uptempo style, which Howland plans to implement, will help with the scoring totals, which were a problem last season.
The passing of John Wooden, the legendary coach whose 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span put UCLA on the map and will never be matched, will be a motivator for this basketball team to bounce back from only its fourth losing season since 1948. The seat behind the Bruin bench, which Wooden sat in Pauley Pavilion during his 35-year retirement, will be roped off and left vacant this season in honor of the great man.
Looking at the Bruins schedule, outside of the NIT Season Tip-Off and a match at Kansas on December 2nd, it is not an overwhelming slate; I don't see any games that I truly consider unwinnable.
Pac-10 foes Washington and Arizona, the two teams picked to finish ahead of UCLA, will be key matchups, as will Arizona State and particularly USC.
The crosstown enemy Trojans swept the Bruins last year, including a 67-46 humiliation at Pauley. It's imperative that Howland's team returns the favor, for rivalry pride along with everything else.
St. John's comes to Westwood on February 5th. Besides being an intersectional contest, the significance of this is that the Red Storm are led by Steve Lavin, the beleaguered and much-criticized ex-UCLA coach who was ousted after posting a 10-19 mark in 2002-2003, their first losing campaign in 55 years.
As for how I think the season will go, I'm in agreement with the pundits about the Bruins' chances at redeeming themselves.
Here's my official prediction:
UCLA will be an improved team this season. They will finish with a winning record and have an outside chance at 20 wins.
The Bruins will finish in third place in the Pac-10 Conference, and will earn an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
If nothing else, pride alone will help the Bruins perform better than in 2009-2010; as was said, things cannot get much worse.
The experience that the returning players got, combined with the new additions, should lead to better times in Westwood.