Normally when two key players on a college basketball team, who averaged nearly 26 points combined, leave school early to go pro, and when you combine that with the team having to play all of its home games away from its on campus arena due to that arena going under renovation, concern about how that team will fare arises.
That will likely not be the case with UCLA’s basketball team, because despite losing Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee to the NBA – which is currently in a lockout, leaving them with out any basketball at all in what I think was a bad decision for those two – the Bruins will be more than formidable.
The pundits and prognosticators believe this, as they rate coach Ben Howland’s team quite highly in the new Pacific-12 Conference:
Lindy’s Magazine picked UCLA to finish second in the conference behind California.
The Sporting News picked them to finish second behind Arizona.
The Associated Press poll has the Bruins ranked 17th, while the coaches’ poll has them at #20. Like Lindy’s and The Sporting News, those polls have UCLA finishing second in the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, Athlon’s Magazine and the Pac-12 media have the Bruins winning the conference.
Not bad for a team that will play 14 of its 18 home games in the over 50 year old Los Angeles Sports Arena, abandoned by USC in 2006 and last used as UCLA’s home in 1965, when the great John Wooden won his second national championship.
The other four home games, including the Wooden Classic on January 5th, will be played at the Honda Center in Anaheim, 40 miles from campus.
Pauley Pavilion, undergoing a massive renovation that will modernize its facilities and increase the capacity to 14,000, will reopen in the fall of 2012.
Howland, entering his ninth season in Westwood, will have a loaded team despite losing Honeycutt and Lee, particularly on the front line.
Forward Reeves Nelson was the now Pac-12’s top rebounder last season, averaging nine boards a game along with his team-leading 13.9 points per contest, which was fourth in the conference.
Nelson will obviously be a huge key to the Bruin attack on both sides of the court, as will 6′ 10″, 305 pound center Josh Smith, who finished third in the conference in rebounding last year (6.3 per game) and averaged almost 11 points an outing; those numbers will certainly go up.
Two transfers from North Carolina, David Wear and his twin brother Travis, who are both 6′ 10″, are expected to fill Honeycutt’s spot rather neatly.
How far UCLA will go may well depend on their guard play, as Lazeric (Zeke) Jones will again man the point after starting there last year and playing through various injuries. Zeke’s 3.2 assists per game was decent, and should rise now that he’s healthy.
Jerime Anderson, the other key returning guard, will be counted on to provide strong minutes after sitting out the Bruins’ first game on November 11th against Loyola Marymount due to supension.
Texas and St. John’s will be UCLA’s marquee non-conference opponents, with the Longhorns comng to the Sports Arena on December 3rd and the Bruins traveling to New York to face former coach Steve Lavin’s Red Storm on February 18th.
California and Arizona – last year’s regular season champion – will be UCLA’s toughest competitors for the Pac-12 crown, and look for defending Pac-10 Tournament champ Washington to put up a good challenge as well.
Having considered everything, here’s how I think the UCLA Bruins will do on the hard court in 2011-2012:
The Bruins will win at least 20 to 25 games this season, possibly more as their front line will be too much for many of their opponents.
They have an excellent chance at winning the Pac-12 championship and will finish no lower than third place at the very worst.
A berth in the NCAA Tournament will be a lock for UCLA, where they will reach the Sweet Sixteen.
I am confident that, barring injuries, Bruin Nation will see a very good basketball team this season, one that will look to continue the progress that was made with their 23-11 record (13-5 and 3rd place in the Pac-10) of a year ago.
So, let the road show begin!