They weren’t exactly pouring champagne around Westwood last year, but after UCLA rebounded from one of its worst seasons in six decades, the bubbly might just be back on ice. And with Derrick Williams and a host of other top players in the Pac-12 off to the NBA, Ben Howland and Co. might be set to uncork another conference championship. While the Bruins weren’t immune to the latest league-wide jettison of talent — they lost junior shooting guard Malcolm Lee and sophomore small forward Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA — they return budding big man Joshua Smith, feisty power forward Reeves Nelson and steady senior point guard Lazeric Jones, while adding former North Carolina forwards David and Travis Wear.
The key will be backcourt depth, as a slew of transfers and recruiting misfortunes has landed Howland in precarious territory. If he’s able to navigate a traveling road show as Pauley Pavilion undergoes renovations, Howland could be looking at his first league championship since winning three straight from 2006-08.
Key Bruins Stat: 0
With Pauley Pavilion undergoing long-overdue rennovations, the Bruins will play precisely zero true home games as they take their show on the road.
If Smith is able to spend more time cleaning the glass and less time cleaning his plate, he could be up for conference Player of the Year honors come season’s end. After a freshman season in which he dazzled with his raw power and savvy around the basket, Smith was called upon to shed even more weight in order to boost his minutes and productivity. But he reportedly gained 10 pounds over the offseason, and it seems that the extra pounds may keep him from reaching his full potential.
Nelson, meanwhile, is one of the top physical specimens in the game and gets every last drop of production out of his 6'8", 235-pound frame. One of the more intimidating players in the conference, with an icy stare and a snarl to match, Nelson was at times a one-man wrecking crew for the Bruins, boasting 12 double-doubles. Nelson plays with a chip on his shoulder, and if he can harness his frustrations into positive energy, he’ll also be in the conference POY race.
That is, if he can fend off the Tobacco Road Twins, David and Travis Wear, the formerly highly coveted forwards who spent a year with the Tar Heels before heading back out west. The Wears grew weary of the Carolina hoops scene and longed to return home, to Howland’s delight, as they bring a pair of big bodies with fundamental skills. Their numbers weren’t overwhelming with UNC, but they are expected to make an instant impact in Howland’s deliberate system, and along with backup center Anthony Stover and power forward Brendan Lane, they’ll add crucial depth.
Hailed as one of the jewels in what was expected to be a game-changing recruiting class in 2008 — alongside Lee, Jrue Holiday, Drew Gordon and J’mison “Bobo” Morgan — Jerime Anderson was projected to play a major role for the Bruins throughout his career. Now the only one of the five to remain, Anderson will indeed determine UCLA’s fate this year, but for all the wrong reasons. Anderson was arrested on charges of grand theft after allegedly stealing a laptop on campus in late July, and his status for the season is in doubt.
Now the onus is on Jones to blossom into a top point guard in the conference, which he showed flashes of doing before numerous bumps and bruises caught up to him late in the year. The former junior college standout averaged 9.1 points and a team-high 3.6 assists but shot only 38.6 percent from the field as a nagging wrist injury altered his release. Fellow junior college transfer De’End Parker could see extended time at point guard if Howland throws the book at Anderson, but Parker is more natural at the off-guard and small forward spots.
Freshman Norman Powell is in line for major minutes at shooting guard.
If Lee and Honeycutt had returned, the Bruins could have been looking at another Final Four run for Howland; as it stands, UCLA should be projected to win the inaugural Pac-12 championship with the league’s top frontcourt, although the lack of backcourt depth will be a concern.
But after a 14–18 season in 2009-10, UCLA fans are understandably enthused that the downfall did not spiral even further, and that the Bruins appear to be heading back to the top of the conference standings.
Pac-12 Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out