TAMPA, FL - MARCH 19: Players for the UCLA Bruins look on from the bench against the Florida Gators during the third round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at St. Pete Times Forum on March 19, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Most of the recent UCLA basketball news has been about future basketball teams but the truth is we have a really good team this year. But it is an unusual team and a team of opposites. We have three starters set in stone: center Josh Smith, power forward Reeves Nelson, and point guard Lazeric "Zeek" Jones or LJ as we call him at BN. We have two positions that we are not sure about; and one position, small forward, is wide open. We have incredible depth in the front court, so much that Dick Vitale praises our backups in his season preview of UCLA. But we are possibly so thin at the three that we may be forced to play a power forward on the wing.
Compare this to last year when the true starting lineup was set from day one with only the seemingly fake competition between Jones and Anderson (everyone knew Jones would start). But our bench was very weak forcing our starters to play too many minutes and leading to many times when the Bruins just let down. The loss to Florida in the last game of the season was really telling where we were out scored 15-2 in points off the bench. Even our best bench player, "sixth man" Jerime Anderson, was so ineffective in 23 minutes at PG that he had only one assist and zero points.
So what does it mean for this year? Well first of all the deeper bench should mean a more consistent team this year. The strength inside makes this Bruins team a throwback to the Wooden days not in style as much as in a desire to ban the three pointer and make it a game of the big men again.
Ryan will preview the season later but today I will focus on the players. Since we don't know the starters yet, I think I will divide the players up a bit differently and talk a bit about what they did since last summer.
THE FOUR WHO WERE WORK OUT STUDS
Ben Howland has been effusive in his praise of the work out routines of four players in this order: LJ, Reeves Nelson, Travis and David Wear. All four were insane in the amount of effort they put in off season.
LJ - The Captain
The easiest prediction this year is that LJ will be a better player than last year and he will be a leader on this team.
Jones should be a more reliable passer and shooter now that the injuries to his right middle finger and left wrist that plagued him over the final three months of last season have fully healed.
"Just the way they came at me every day," Jones said, "I had to give them all I had. I definitely feel like I've learned from that."
Reeves Nelson - Yoga Man
Yes, Reeves Nelson practices (is that the right word?) Yoga. Reeves Nelson also is a gym fiend. He started the day after the Florida loss and from all I can tell he did not stop. He led UCLA in rebounding and scoring last year. He is generally considered one of the top 50 players in the country and is on the Wooden Watch list. He is working on his shooting range but I will believe that when I see it because last year he shot 25,000 shots and still only 19% from three. But Reeves did improve on other aspects of his game between his Freshman and Sophomore years and his work ethic is truly admirable.
But in some ways what excites me most about the team is that, as good as Reeves is, he is not the best player or even the best big.
Let the Confusion Begin - The Wear Twins
Travis Wear will play 4 and 5 and David Wear will play some 3 as well as 4. In other words not only is it impossible to tell them apart it may be impossible to figure out where they are playing. Some think David may start at 3. I have a feeling that Travis, not Stover, may be getting a number of backup 5 minutes. They were solid but not spectacular at North Carolina during their freshman seasons. We do know they have range. The question is can they defend a 3? Will CBH play them at the 3 even if it means playing a four letter word to him spelled z-o-n-e?
But what many forget is that they have been practicing with the team for a year. This is a huge advantage in that they CBH's system and know the players. It is great to have depth.
MORE THAN IOWA GIRLS' LEAGUE STYLE PLAYERS?
In Iowa high school girls' basketball they play six people on the court divided on two sides of three with three offense players and three defensive players. The two don't mix. Based on last year's play Tyler Lamb and Anthony Stover would have been great in that sort of league as they are the best returning defensive players on the team. Tyler looks like he could respectably step in the shoes of Malcolm Lee, Russell Westbrook and AA on the defensive side. Anthony Stover was awesome in the magically Arizona game on defense and seems meant to block shots and hedges well.
But they both were major liabilities last year on offense. Tyler Lamb shot 20% from three for the season and was even worse in the Pac-10. He had the same number of made FGs as TOs. Anthony Stover shot 29% from the Free Throw line and made me long for LMR's shooting touch for a big. He had twice as many TOs as he did FGs.
Tyler worked hard on his shot in the off season to get rid of the side spin and looks like he will start. He is also feeling more confident this year and should be better. With Josh and Reeves inside he will get the chances to make open shots.
Stover spent a lot of time at a big man camp working on his offense. He knows it is an issue and is working on it. I think it will come but the question is when. Stover may be like Ryan Hollins in that his senior season he really shines and puts it together.
THE OFF THE COURT ISSUES
Joshua Smith at 315 or so
Joshua Smith will be better. He predicts a Pac-12 Championship as Nestor noted but I will make a prediction about Josh: he will be Pac-12 first team and the conference's best center. He is a good bet for conference player of the year. The limiting factor is his weight. He came in 10 pounds lighter, supposedly. But if you watch Howland in the YouTube videos from Media Day Josh's weight and body fat % are UCLA state secrets. The defining moment of the Florida may have been when Chandler Parsons recovered to block a point blank layup/dunk of Smith's. One has to believe if Smith weighed 20 pounds less he dunks that and all Parsons could have done is foul him. If this is true, UCLA is looking real good:
The number that stood out about Smith on the eve of the Bruins' first practice wasn't so much his weight as his predicted minutes per game.
"I feel I can play 30," he said.
Jerime Anderson Proves this is a Close Team
To a player, Anderson's teammates stand by him. It is interesting that Reeves was the first and most loyal to Jerime. I agree with Nestor in that the "penalty" on Anderson was too light and I must admit I have mixed emotions on him. I am also scared that Howland wants to win so bad that he brought Jerime back. Anderson is also a long shot to start at the 2.
We will see how it works but Jerime seems to prove that the players are relatively united and harmonious, which is a good thing. Jerime for his part is ready for the fans not to be:
Jerime Anderson is ready for the mean-spirited props that are sure to follow him this season wherever UCLA goes.
"I anticipate everything - laptops in the crowd, a MacBook," the senior guard said Wednesday during the Bruins' media day. "I'm ready for anything."
The Man Out but Not Forgotten
It seems tough to see a scenario where Brendan Lane gets a lot of minutes. He started last year as the sixth man and starts this year as the eleventh. Expect uninformed reporters/bloggers to talk about transferring but don't believe it. Bendan is a valued member of the team even if his minutes may not show it. Brendan always worked hard and was there for Josh while he got use to the college game and the year before proved to be a fighter on a bad ankle.
The Biggest Unknown
De'End Parker. Is he the next LJ, JC transfer and instant starter? Where will he play? He played PG last year, will he be a 2 or 3 this year? De'End will be the player to watch early for the diehard fan. Some describe him as a glue guy but we shall see.
Norman Powell seems really young. Not saying that is bad and quite the contrary he could be this year's Josh Smith. By that I mean Smith started rough but showed flashes. By the end of the year he was a star. Powell may be the backup PG (if not Parker) when Anderson is out. Powell will battle with Lamb for the starting 2 guard spot. Powell is the best athlete at UCLA since Westbrook and does not shy away from that comparison. He could be the breakout player this year.
In closing UCLA will were throwback uniforms and play "home games" at the Sports Arena. The last year they played there they won the national championship.
If they can repeat that form, UCLA will be set.