Get excited: College hoops season is around the corner.
Get even more excited: UCLA hoops is set to tip-off in less than a month, thus re-opening the historic — and now-renovated — Pauley Pavilion.
Of course, we all know that UCLA basketball didn’t live up to expectations last season. Or the season before that. Or the season before that.
But this is a different year for UCLA fans. While UCLA head honcho Ben Howland is on the hot seat — much like he was last season, but was spared due to his tops-in-the-nation recruiting class — the Bruins boast one of the most talented, young rosters in college basketball that figure to be in the national title discussion in 2012.
Oddly enough, though, UCLA might not be a shoo-in for the Pac-12 conference title. Although the PAC was likely one of the worst major basketball conferences in 2011, the Arizona Wildcats figure to be a force in the conference after they, too, had a largely disappointing season by their standards.
And those ‘Cats will be the Bruins’ biggest challenge in 2012.
Because while Arizona finished with just 23 wins, they still looked awfully competitive at times in 2011-12. Sure, they finished fourth in one of the worst major conferences in college hoops last season, but consider that they featured a relatively young squad that was devastated by chemistry issues (and that flamed out because freshman Josiah Turner did so first).
They pulled a UCLA, though, bringing in the third-best recruiting class in the nation for 2012, despite looking frustratingly inept most season and finishing in the bottom half of the nation in nearly every statistical category possible save for free throw attempts.
That recruiting class looks scary, though. Last season, the Wildcats didn’t figure to have the size to compete with UCLA’s supposedly-vaunted trio of Josh Smith and the Wear twins, David and Travis.
And that’d still be the case, if the Wildcats didn’t get freshman Kaleb Tarczewski aboard, who was one of the five best players coming out of high school and is a legitimate post presence as a seven-footer with all the skills and mobility you’d like to see from a big man down low. Considering UCLA center Josh Smith has “a long way to go” before he’s where he should be, this could be a huge disadvantage for the Bruins if Kaleb’s skillset translates well at the college level.
But the Wildcats’ new true center isn’t alone: Arizona also picked up freshman Grant Jerrett over the offseason, a 6’10” power forward whose scouting report vaguely describes a Pau Gasol-type player, which is one who has decent range, crisp footwork, a high basketball IQ, above average passing skills and incredibly soft hands.
That’ll boast problems for UCLA because it isn’t as if UCLA got much bigger over the offseason. Both David and Travis Wear struggled mightily defensively, and although they won’t be entirely overworked against soft-by-comparison power forward in Jerrett, it means that the Wildcats can get creative in the frontcourt to force Josh Smith outside to guard a rangy Jerrett and a Wear stuck on the inside with an inside-oriented big man like Tarczewski.
And hell, since we’re on the topic of size, let’s discuss another freshman who was recruited out of high school as a power forward: Brandon Ashley, a 6’8” forward that ranked 16th in the ESPN 100.
Ashley will be a match-up nightmare not just for UCLA, but for basketball programs in general. The kid is a combo forward that can play both the 3 and 4 effectively. While he has a solid range of post moves, he’s also an above average ball-handler that has the ability to shoot from the outside. His size and skillset seem to suggest he’s the kind of player UCLA point forward Kyle Anderson would be guarding most times, and while Anderson is lengthy and smart, we’re not entirely sure about his defensive prowess.
Of course, Arizona’s not exactly returning much to work with after that. Solomon Hill was the lone Wildcat to put up double-digit points a game that had any eligibility left, and he’ll return to help Arizona get back to prominence.
After that, it’s all up in the air for this Arizona roster. Mark Lyons, a transfer from Xavier, could be a major addition for these Wildcats, but the guard position shouldn’t be a concern for UCLA; Larry Drew is a defensive stalwart and Norman Powell is being molded in the same vein.
Overall, Arizona is not in a totally different position than UCLA is. After being preemptively crowned as a preseason top-25 team, the ‘Cats imploded and wound up packing early in their bid for an NIT banner. Now, much like UCLA, the Wildcats are relying on a vaunted incoming freshman class to become nationally relevant once more.
Of course, this all means UCLA will have to go through Arizona — just like Arizona will have to go through UCLA — to reinvent themselves as a national powerhouse. The Bruins will have to see the Wildcats twice — or thrice, if the Bruins and Cats play deep into the Pac-12 conference tournament — and losses each way could swing a conference title in either direction.
Both programs look to be national title contenders again, and both are going to do it the way the current national champs did it.
With fresh faces leading the way.