The expectation bar for UCLA men’s basketball is so high, most people would need an oxygen tank just to reach the top.
So predicting that the Bruins will win the realigned Pac-12 Conference next season may not move old school fans used to seeing championship banners placed high up inside Pauley Pavilion with astonishing regularity. But it should.
These are different times and UCLA does not dominate the college basketball world like it did in the 1960s and ‘70s under the guidance of the legendary John Wooden. Due to the NBA’s one-and-done rule, teams regularly lose top-notch freshmen and sophomores to the pros.
The Bruins came home early from the NCAA tournament after losing 73-65 in the third round to Florida, disheartened, but not discouraged. They are a very young team with a lot of talent that can only get better—if the talent stays in school.
And it appears that most, if not all, of it will.
But that’s not the only reason to be excited about next year if you’re a Bruins fan. UCLA and Coach Ben Howland will welcome several key new players to the roster in the fall. Those players could have an immediate impact and change the very nature of the way the Bruins play, both on offense and defense.
Don’t book your ticket just yet for New Orleans, site of the 2012 NCAA Final Four, but you might want to look into hotel reservations and car rentals.
There’s reason to be highly optimistic about the Bruins winning the Pac-12 next season and going deep into the NCAA tournament—keep reading and find out why.
The names don't exactly send shivers down the collective spines of the opposition: Anthony Stover, Brendan Lane, Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb.
But these kids just gained a huge amount of tournament experience and they have shown enough progress for fans to know they'll be that much better next season.
The 6'10", 235-pound redshirt freshman Stover was something of an oddity this year in that he finished the season with more blocks than points (28 blocks, 21 points). He averaged eight minutes per game, he was totally uncomfortable on offense and he mostly played when starting center Joshua Smith got into foul trouble.
But while he can be beat off the dribble, Stover has excellent timing for blocking shots down in the post and that alone provided the Bruins with some good defensive energy late in their game against Florida last weekend.
Anderson was a highly-recruited point guard coming out of high school who hasn't lived up to expectations as a junior in a backup role. But he did get better this season and seems more comfortable handling the ball. He's had a couple of games this season in which his three-point shots were falling (his 39 percent from beyond the arc led the team) and he'll provide senior leadership in the fall.
Lamb is another one of those physically gifted, big (6'5") guards who is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. In 2010, as a senior at Mater Dei High School, Lamb averaged 19 points and seven rebounds for the 32-2, eighth-ranked Monarchs. He averaged just 2.6 points in 12.2 minutes for the Bruins this season. Expect those totals to increase in the fall.
Lane provides hustle and solid defense and, at 6'9", rebounding strength. In a little over 15 minutes per game this year, Lane averaged 3.1 boards for the Bruins.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, De'End Parker was the last of 10 children and was so named because his mother apparently said she was done having any more babies. As in "The End."
The 6'5" Parker recently committed to UCLA and he should give the bench much needed scoring punch next season. He averaged 12 points per game, six rebounds and four assists for the top-ranked junior college team in California.
Parker has an impressive wingspan and, although he played guard for the Rams this season, his coach thinks he'll be more effective on the wing for the Bruins.
For De'End, this may just be the beginning.
Norman Powell looks like another standout in a long line of superior guards who have attended UCLA in recent years. The 6'3" shooting guard averaged 20.4 points per game this season for Lincoln High School in San Diego, shooting over 50 percent from the floor and leading his team to a 32-2 record and a ranking of No. 14 in the nation.
Powell should see plenty of action in the fall for the Bruins and he could compete with starter Lazeric Jones for playing time. He is extremely athletic and he has excellent feel for the basket.
At Lincoln, Powell also averaged 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. One fan on Youtube refers to Powell as "the next Russell Westbrook."
Those are big shoes to fill, but he certainly has the raw talent.
They're from Huntington Beach, California and needed to travel 3,000 miles and play one season for another school (North Carolina) before realizing there's no place like home.
Ben Howland is simply ecstatic to have these two sophomore standouts joining the Bruins in the fall. He told Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: "The twins are very good players. They bring a lot of skill, a lot of size."
Both 6'10" and about 225 pounds, David and Travis Wear are highly skilled rebounders and outside shooters who should have a major impact on how other Pac-12 schools play UCLA.
As freshmen, the brothers each averaged 10 or more minutes per game at Chapel Hill. Travis averaged 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds, while David added 2.9 points and 1.7 rebounds. Those minutes should increase for them as the season gets underway in Westwood.
It may be hard to tell David and Travis apart (one minute separates them), but if they both produce for the Bruins, will anyone really care? It all could spell Double Trouble for the rest of the conference.
Joshua Smith was one of the most highly recruited players to come out of high school when he signed to attend UCLA last year. Now we know why.
The 6'10", 320-pound freshman center scored 30-points in two NCAA tournament games against Michigan State and Florida, adding nine rebounds, one block and one steal to his resume. But he was visibly upset and shaken by his team's inability to knock off the Gators in the third round and advance to the Sweet 16.
Smith told ESPN.com blogger Amanda Rykoff: "I'm still hurting. I never want to feel this again."
He also confirmed he has no intentions of leaving school early: "I am not going anywhere. I am staying here."
If Smith continues his conditioning program in the offseason, there's no telling what he can bring to the court in his sophomore year. As a freshman, Smith averaged 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game for the Bruins in 21.7 minutes of action per contest, by far the lowest of the starting five.
He was prone to early foul trouble which limited his minutes, but that will improve with practice and maturity. His lack of conditioning also played a role in his development. That too will get better.
The fact is that Smith has tremendous upside. He has soft hands, excellent passing skills and a nice touch facing the basket for short jumpers. And his size allows him to literally move out opposing players with what seems like relative ease.
Malcolm Lee really came into his own this season as a terrific lock-down defender and a fearless penetrating guard on offense. The hope is that he'll return to Westwood for his senior year and a chance to lead the team deep into the tournament.
The 6'5" junior averaged 13.1 points this season on 44-percent shooting. He also converted 78 percent of his free-throw attempts, one of the only Bruins to do that well at the charity stripe.
Lee became known for his defensive ability and many observers thought he should have won Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year over Marcus Simmons of USC.
Lee scored 20 or more points five times during the season for the Bruins and truly matured along the way into a complete player.
The best word to describe Reeves Nelson may be "relentless."
He's not the tallest nor the biggest player on the court, but he's certainly one of the toughest. It was apparent from the first time he walked onto the court as a freshman and it only became more obvious this year. He is a developing sophomore who ended the year as UCLA's leading scorer.
At 6'8", 235 pounds, Nelson is tremendous at getting the tough rebounds, attacking the basket and securing a lot of hustle points. He also has developed a nice touch on mid-range jumpers.
Nelson averaged 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds to lead the Bruins in both categories. He also shot 57 percent from the floor and scored a season high 27 points and 16 rebounds in a 71-49 blowout win over Arizona on February 26.
Nelson has all but assured everyone that he will be back in the fall. His younger brother, Raymond, is an incoming freshman tight end who will play for the Bruins football team and Reeves is excited at the thought of being on campus together.
So are the Bruins basketball faithful.
With the likelihood that the NBA will lock out its players when their collective bargaining agreement expires and possibly force cancellation of the season, it would seem to make sense for forward Tyler Honeycutt to return to UCLA for his junior year.
Honeycutt is keeping mum about his decision, but the fact is that he's an extremely talented, big shooting forward with a future at the next level. But it's also true that his game still needs refinement—he turns the ball over a lot and he is inconsistent on offense from game to game.
Capable of pouring in points—he scored 33 at Kansas in his best performance of the year last December—Honeycutt is also known to disappear at times when his team needs him to step up and score.
Still, this 6'8", 190-pound sophomore is a tremendous talent with one of the best catch-and-shoot motions in the country. He averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds this season and he was the leading shot blocker in the conference at 2.1 per contest.
Honeycutt's field-goal percentage dropped to just over 40 percent this year as he went long stretches of not being in rhythm with his shot. He is currently rated as a second-round draft pick in this summer's NBA lottery.
Howland says he'll support Honeycutt leaving school early for the NBA if he's a top 15 lottery pick. Conventional wisdom says he is not and that would be a good thing for UCLA and for this budding star.
Ben Howland has been the head coach at UCLA since 2003. Starting in 2006, he led his teams to three consecutive Final Four appearances.
This fall Howland should have the nucleus of a team that could be very, very good. There's depth, height, rebounding, scoring ability and maturity. All represent the ingredients to win a Pac-12 title and make a serious run in the tournament.
Even if Honeycutt leaves UCLA for the NBA, the team appears to be much better than this year's 23-11 unit that went 16-2 at home. The Bruins will play their home games in Los Angeles, but not on campus, as Pauley Pavilion undergoes a major facelift.
This year's top Pac-10 teams, Washington and Arizona, will likely lose their best players in Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Williams respectively to the draft. That too bodes well for the Bruins.
Anything can happen during the course of the season. But now is the time to dream. For UCLA and its fans, it just may be a dream team by the time next year's NCAA tournament rolls around.