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An elite signing class will join Joshua Smith in Westwood
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The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals are starting to arrive on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 12 UCLA.
The UCLA basketball program was teetering on the edge of an abyss, arms waving, frantically grasping at air for anything, just praying not to fall into obscurity.
A third straight season had ended in frustration, a damaging Sports Illustrated feature article served as a stain on the program, and it appeared Ben Howland, who just four years ago was coming off three straight Final Four appearances, lost control of the program he so cherished.
The vultures had descended, antsy fans who seethed over three aborted championship runs now calling for Howland’s head. Three Final Fours bled into three seasons of misery, two of them ending without even a postseason appearance. Things were crashing in.
And then, with one recruiting class, it’s all roses and sunshine in Tinseltown. Howland and his staff brought in arguably the nation’s top class, led by two of the top five recruits in the country in Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, to unveil in the refurbished Pauley Pavilion. They will join a roster with talent and experience but lacking discipline, with the fate of the season potentially resting on one big man’s broad shoulders.
Suddenly, the abyss does not appear so close.
The big man is Joshua Smith, and he is big. Still big. Very big. As a freshman in ’10-11, he burst onto the scene midway through Pac-10 play, finishing the season at 10.9 points game while averaging almost 22 minutes. By the end of the year, he was routinely scoring in double-figures, including a 16-point, six-rebound performance in a season-ending loss to Florida in the NCAA Tournament.
He lumbered into last season a sleeping giant, heavier than the season before. Smith eclipsed the 26-minute barrier just once as a sophomore, averaging just 17.2 minutes for the year, his season ending with a nine-minute, seven-point, five-foul performance in a loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament. Done in by a soft midsection and constant foul trouble because of it, Smith’s minutes slipped, his performance dipped, Howland flipped and the Bruins flopped.
If he comes back for Year 3 leaner and meaner, UCLA could contend for the Final Four.
If not, the Bruins will have to count on coveted freshman recruit Tony Parker, as backup center Anthony Stover continues to be sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Either one of the Wear twins — David or Travis — could fill in sparse minutes at the 5, but both are expected to share the power forward duties. They combined for 54.6 minutes per game last season as sophomores after transferring from North Carolina, Travis taking the lead in scoring (11.5 ppg to 10.2) while David maintained the edge in rebounding (6.3 rpg to Travis' 5.9).
And then there’s Muhammad, almost unanimously considered one of the top two recruits in the country, alongside Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel. Muhammad is a dangerous and effective scorer who will play extensively at the 3, and he should contend for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors. The question is when Muhammad will first play for UCLA. The NCAA is investigating his amateur status. He did not join the Bruins on their exhibition tour in China.
Related: Arrival of Muhammad, Anderson leads makeover at UCLA
Larry Drew II is eligible for a one-year rental after spending the first two-plus seasons at North Carolina. Drew averaged nearly six assists per game as a sophomore before his role was reduced with the emergence of Kendall Marshall.
While Drew is the more traditional point guard and will likely defend the opponent’s point guard, Anderson could become the primary ball-handler early in his career. The prodigious talent is a gifted passer and uses his size to his advantage. At 6-9, he can play three or four positions, and Howland intends to use him as such, maximizing matchups against much smaller opponents.
Drew and Anderson will often be on the court together — Drew, Anderson, Muhammad, Travis Wear and Smith is the likely starting off point — but Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell will play major roles as well. Lamb, a junior, struggled to find confidence in his offensive game last year, shooting just 40.8 percent while averaging 9.0 points. Powell was a key cog defensively for the Bruins and if he becomes more polished offensively, he could see significant time.
The pieces are in place for a UCLA revival in 2012-13. After escaping the miserable digs of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, they return home to an impatient fan base, frothing at the mouth in anticipation. The talent is in place, recruiting clicking on all cylinders and a pair of freshmen are expected to propel the Bruins back into title contention.
They are no longer staring down at the abyss, afraid to make one wrong move. No, they are looking up.