At the end of the week, UCLA hoops will have tipped off its 2012-13 season, one in which they have been ascribed as a college basketball powerhouse once more, and one in which the season will end in glory or disgust with no room for middle ground.
Because this is essentially a go-big-or-go-home, do-or-die, all-or-nothing type of season for UCLA head coach Ben Howland. We’re sure you’re sick of hearing about how Howland will have to turn in a remarkable season to save his job, and we’re sure you understand that such a remarkable season is entirely possible given UCLA’s freshman class.
But it can’t be stressed enough, because that’s going to dominate the narrative of the season for these UCLA Bruins, and these narratives may seep into the national scene, too. Every broadcast, every television segment with your typical talking heads, every blog post will mention Ben Howland’s job security. It’s significant, and it’s why we’ve spent the past two paragraphs harping on about how meaningful this season is.
This season, though, also has potential for greatness. Given the vast amount of talent UCLA has at its disposal here, there’s no reason this team can’t achieve “greatness.” Sure, cohesion and chemistry are all-important in the game of hoops, but when you’ve got unselfish glue guys (Kyle Anderson, Larry Drew II), elite scorers (Jordan Adams and, possibly, Shabazz Muhammad), big guys down low (Josh Smith, Tony Parker) and versatile forwards that do anything you ask of them (Travis and David Wear), chemistry tends to work itself out so long as the players are in the right system, offensively and defensively.
And they will be, if the offseason reports are accurate. Ben Howland is finally moving away from that slow, half-court offense that he’s implemented in Westwood for the past nine years, in favor of an uptempo, full-court offense, an offensive scheme that actually fits the talent UCLA possesses.
Because fast-breaking will be these Bruins’ specialty. Although Kyle Anderson isn’t devastatingly athletic, that’s not a necessary attribute to push the ball up the court and make plays in fastbreak situations as the point forward. (No, pundits, Larry Drew II will not be the primary ball-handler in 2012-13.) A quick push will likely see guys like Jordan Adams, Tyler Lamb or other perimeter scorers (we’ll toss in Shabazz’s name more when/if he gets cleared to play this season) get open looks on the fastbreak.
Of course, this kind of an offensive system will work best if the big men can keep up and run the floor, and in this context, the only elephant in the room here is Josh Smith, who, as we’re sure you’re sick of hearing, has had weight issues since before his mom was born. This is maddening, because Smith proved to be UCLA’s best player per-minute in 2011-12, leading the Bruins in PER, a measure of efficiency.
The “per-minute” part is the caveat here, because Smith wasn’t getting many of those minutes, either because he was in foul trouble (a functioning of that conditioning) or he was too gassed to continue playing (also a functioning of his poor conditioning). For Smith to be the powerhouse UCLA fans have wanted him to be since he had a stellar freshman year, he’s going to have to bump up that stamina and stay on the court longer, because a fast-paced offense isn’t going to slow down for him to reach the offensive end.
If that doesn’t happen, though, freshman Tony Parker won’t have any quips with taking Smith’s starting job. Parker, who was a bit heavy when he signed to UCLA back in April, looks much slimmer than he did a few months ago, and though we’re not too sure he has the same offensive skillset that Smith possesses, it’s likely that he’s going to be an improvement due to his advantage fitness-wise.
And then there’s bench. Dear lord almighty, the bench.