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Top 25 Countdown: No. 25 UCLA Bruins

Oct 1, 2012, 2:07 PM EDT

UCLA v Arizona - Quarterfinals Getty Images

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 19-14, 11-7 Pac-12 (t-5th)

Head Coach: Ben Howland

Key Losses: Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, Reeves Nelson, Anthony Stover

Newcomers: Kyle Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad, Larry Drew II, Tony Parker, Jordan Adams

Projected Lineup:

- G: Larry Drew II, Sr.
- G: Shabazz Muhammad, Fr.
- F: Kyle Anderson, Fr.
- F: Travis Wear, Jr.
- F: David Wear, Jr.
- Bench: Joshua Smith, Jr.; Tony Parker, Fr.; Tyler Lamb, Jr.; Jordan Adams, Fr.; Norman Powell, So.

Outlook: I am not high on the Bruins heading into this season. In fact, I’d be surprised if you found any preseason rankings that had UCLA lower than this. When you look at what the Bruins bring back and what they add to their roster this season, the talent level is, frankly, impressive. Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson made up two-thirds of the consensus top three recruits in the Class of 2012, and they are joined by Tony Parker — a top 30 big man — and Jordan Adams — a top 75 wing — in what has to be considered Ben Howland’s best class since he took over in Westwood. And that’s before you factor in the addition of North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II.

When those four are added to the group of players returning — the Wear twins, Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb — it is easy to see why UCLA has plenty of hype heading into the season.

I’m not buying into it, and there are plenty of reasons why:

  • Eligibility issues: Muhammad’s recruitment is being investigated by the NCAA. The key issue they are looking into is his family’s relationship with a pair of financial advisors and how he paid for his unofficial visits. There are also concerns about his affiliation with Adidas. Muhammad was ineligible to go on the team’s August trip to China. Anderson’s recruitment is also being investigated, although he is expected to be cleared in time for the start of the season. Best case scenario? The investigation — and media inquiries about it — is a distraction the team has to deal with throughout the start of the season while Muhammad, and possibly Anderson, miss some important practice time to get used to their teammates. That’s not ideal, but it’s certainly better than the other possible outcome: having Muhammad (and Anderson?) miss a significant amount of the season.
  • Smith is still out of shape: I’ve made a personal decision to stop making jokes about Smith’s weight this season, because at this point I don’t believe it’s as simple as Smith “being fat”. With his inability to shed the pounds given what’s on the line for him — athletically and monetarily — by remaining out of shape, I don’t think it’s difficult to make the assumption that he has a serious overeating problem, which is an addiction and a disease. That’s not a joking matter. But it is an issue that leads me to believe we’ll never see Smith — who, given his size, soft hands and nimble feet, could be the best big man in the country — live up to his potential. I’d expect the Wears twins and Tony Parker to all be playing over Smith by January.
  • Who plays the point?: Howland has said that Drew will start for him and that he is the team’s “most indispensable” player. This is the same guy that left North Carolina in the middle of the season, unannounced, after watching the Tar Heels improve drastically when he got benched for Kendall Marshall. The irony? Drew may actually be the best option at the point for this Bruins team. Anderson is a terrific play-maker and a special passer, but he’s also 6-foot-8 and nicknamed “Slo-Mo” for a reason. If he’s playing the point, who is guarding Mark Lyons, Jio Fontan and Chasson Randle?

The bottom-line is that I simply do not like the make-up of this team. Howland made a name for himself as a head coach by putting together gritty, blue-collar teams that won games by controlling the pace of the game and digging in defensively. Does the rotation listed above really look like one that will be able to out-physical and out-tough anyone?

There are bigger issues, as well, regarding Howland’s leadership of the UCLA program. Remember the story from Sports Illustrated last February about the UCLA program? It certainly didn’t paint Howland in a flattering light and, frankly, makes it seem like he has lost the control over, and respect of, his team.

Predictions?: There is enough talent on the roster that UCLA will still win games, but I don’t see them contending for the Pac-12 title. I think a fourth or fifth place finish in the conference — which will be improved this season — is more likely. And while the conference as a whole may be better than it was last season, that’s not a guarantee that four or five teams will be headed to the NCAA tournament from the league. I’d bet on UCLA heading into the Pac-12 tournament needing to make a run to (at least) the title game for a shot at avoiding the NIT.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

  1. jalnichols - Oct 1, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    So UCLA is #25 in the country, but 4th or 5th in the Pac-12? I’m struggling to see how the Pac-12 could deserve 3-4 spots from 1-24. They have Arizona and a bunch of bubble teams (Stanford, Cal, Colorado).

  2. dlmzzz - Oct 1, 2012 at 9:03 PM

    I’m not completely sold on the Bruins either, but this ranking is way too low.

    Eligibility issues — I get this one. It’s hard to know where to rank these guys until we know for sure who will play for them.

    Who plays the point — this is a FAR easier question to answer than you are making it out to be. Larry Drew plays the point on defense. Kyle Anderson plays the point on offense. They swap responsibilities on the other end. Why is this so hard? Duke won a national championship doing this just a couple of years ago.

    Smith is out of shape — big deal. He’s never been a solid contributor, and he won’t be this year. Look, if UCLA gets all of their players eligible, then they bring in within a hair as much talent as Kentucky, and return a zillion times more talent and experience. That Smith doesn’t count in that listing doesn’t change the truth of it.

    Given that, the only reason to give UCLA a different ranking than Kentucky is the coaching. Historically, Howland is feast or famine — he’s taken teams to the final Four multiple times, and he’s had teams go down in flames. I don’t see a solid reason yet why this season will be flames instead of finals.

  3. imforbigblue - Oct 2, 2012 at 10:27 PM

    You think you will be as good as UK?? One thing your leaving out is you dont have Coach Cal a guy who is a master at bringing these young guys in and to play D and play TEAM ball something Bazz will never do. You can have all the best players in the world, but if you dont have a good coach to bring it together then it means nothing!

    • Rob Dauster - Oct 3, 2012 at 8:42 AM

      I think this is the first time I’ve ever actually agreed with imforbigblue’s UK homerism. Coach Cal is great at getting players to buy in to what he wants to do. Howland’s never proven capable of doing that.

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