Coming off a season in which they finished 30-6 and reached the NCAA Final Four, the Bruins return most of their key players and add elite freshman Kevin Love.
Coach: Ben Howland (fifth season)
Returning Starters: Josh Shipp, Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Key Returning Players: Russell Westbrook, Lorenzo Mata-Real, Alfred Aboya, Michael Roll, Nikola Dragovic
Key Newcomers: Kevin Love
Coming off a season in which they finished 30-6 (15-3 in the Pac-10) and reached the NCAA Final Four before losing to Florida, the Bruins return essentially four starters, one of whom, Mata-Real, is now the first post player off the bench due to the arrival of elite recruit Love.
UCLA is 12-1 at the conclusion of its non-conference schedule, with wins over Maryland, Michigan State (Ranked 10th at the time) and Michigan and a 63-60 loss to Texas (ranked 8th at the time).
It enters Pac-10 play as a favorite to repeat as conference champion, with perhaps Washington State the most likely contender. The two programs are somewhat similar, with deliberate playing styles and excellent defenses. The Cougars rank first in the league in scoring defense and UCLA ranks second, but the Bruins score almost six points a game more, playing them in the middle of the conference in the category.
Both programs also have tremendously balanced scoring, with UCLA having all five starters average in double figures, between Love's 16.4 points per game and Mbah a Moute's 10.1 points per outing.
The Bruins are beating teams by an average of 20.9 points per game, and that is despite a field goal percentage (.485) and 3-point shooting percentage (.353) that are seventh in the league and a free throw percentage (.719) that is fifth in the league.
Simply put, the Bruins do an excellent job of extending their defense, limiting opponent 3-point field goal percentage (.283) and they are second in the league in rebounding defense, rebounding margin, and turnover margin.
Though Love is the only addition playing more than eight minutes per game, he's a key newcomer to a program that has lacked a dominate-type post presence at both ends of the floor in recent years. Highly skilled, Love is one of the best passing post players in the country, an excellent rebounded (10.2 rebounds per game) and free throw shooter, and he takes excellent care of the basketball in the post and can knock down mid-range shots at a high percentage.
In Shipp, Collison and Westbrook, the Bruins have a trio of guards with great understanding of the game, and all shoot the ball well out to the 3-point stripe (combined 50-of-122) with Shipp being far and away the most likely to shoot the ball from long range. He has more than one-third of the team's total 3-point attempts. All three players also have more assists than turnovers, with Westbrook leading the league with 5.67 assists per game and Collison leading the league with a 3.57 assist-turnover ratio.
Mbah a Moute gives the team a versatile forward with inside-outside skill and the ability to do a lot of damage in the seams of opponents' defenses, while being a very good defensive player with his length and awareness.
Mata and Aboya provide size and experience off the bench, something that had been missing in recent years.
Outlook: Though the Bruins lost Arron Afflalo, their MVP from last year's squad, they are as talented as last year and perhaps more so. They may miss Afflalo's defensive ability and tendency to be the go-to guy in the clutch, but Collison is proven to be capable in that roll and there should be enough balance on offense to offset the loss. As with WSU, consistency is less of an issue with this type of team than say, Oregon or Washington, due to style of play and it appears inevitable the Bruins will be sitting at or near the top of the Pac-10 when all is said and done.
Best Case Season: The Bruins win the Pac-10 Championship again with a similar conference record as last year, give or take, and get over the hump late in the post-season, cutting down the nets in San Antonio, 2008 host of the Final Four.
Worst Case Season: The Bruins are one of a handful of teams that legitimately could claim that anything less than a Final Four berth would be a disappointment. Injuries and chemistry problems would be the true worst case scenario, but if this team is healthy, anything less than a Sweet 16 would be a real surprise.
...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now for a FREE Trial