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Eve Of 07-08 Ben Ball Season: Predictions/Expectations & Concerns

So less than 24 hours to go till the Ben Ball exhibition season officially kicks off at the Cathedral of College Basketball. And with the Pac-10 Media Day festivities being held today, I am sure we are going to have a fun hoops roundup tomorrow am. But before getting into those articles, I figured it'd be fun to write a post looking at the schedule for this upcoming season, lay down some markers, and think out loud about some of the concerns going through my mind heading into Coach Howland's 5th season. I did this kind of post in previous years of BN and they were a lot of fun (see posts from 2006 and 2005). Certainly more fun than to discuss matchups between football teams coached by two Doofuses from the Pac-10 (the other one being Stoops if you were wondering).

Anyway, let's get back to Ben Ball. Obviously, after two straight Pac-10 championships and trips to the Final-4, there will be lot of people around California, and around the country, who will look to jump on our bandwagon (which was kind of empty during those early days of sticking with Howland). I mean, I still remember people would yawn about the idea of Ben Ball back when we were just getting into this blogging thing, before we all experienced this:

Photo Credit: AP

I am sure there are going to be a lot of low information/IQ "fans" who are going to come out and say anything less than a trip to the Final-4 will be considered as a huge disappointment. These are the same chicken littles who have been coming on here to whine about Ben Ball after the losses during the last 2+ years of BN (some of them coincidentally tend to be Dorrellistas who used to pipe up about why we were giving our basketball coach and staff the benefit of the doubt, while constantly giving their boy wonder - the Thinker of the Pac-10 - in every "move"). Ok, I got side tracked again. Back to Ben Ball.

I will come out and say despite all the great expectations, I don't believe a third straight trip to the Final-4 (San Antonio I think) is a "slam dunk" (to channel George Tenet). If anything in a stacked conference, I think it will be a formidable challenge for our Warriors to win the conference championship, and then do well in the Pac-10 tourney, setting themselves up with a favorable seed (hopefully out of West) in the Big Dance.

So, with that in mind, here is a look at our season's schedule:

Fri Nov. 9 Portland St (W)
Mon Nov. 12 Prairie View A&M (W)
Tue Nov. 13 CBE Prelim Fin (W)
Mon Nov. 19 @CBE Semifinal (#)
Tue Nov. 20 @CBE Final (#)
Fri Nov. 23 Yale (W)
Wed Nov. 28 GW (W)
Sun Dec. 2 Texas (W)
Sat Dec. 8 @ Wooden Classic (W)
Sat Dec. 15 Idaho St (W)
Tue Dec. 18 Western Illinois (W)
Sat Dec. 22 @ Michigan (#)
Sat Dec. 29 UC Davis (W)
Thu Jan. 3 @ Stanford (#)
Sat Jan. 5 @ California (W)
Thu Jan. 10 Washington (W)
Sat Jan. 12 WSU (W)
Sat Jan. 19 Southern Cal (W)
Thu Jan. 24 @ Oregon (#)
Sat Jan. 26 @ Oregon St (W)
Thu Jan. 31 Arizona (W)
Sat Feb. 2 ASU (W)
Thu Feb. 7 @ WSU (#)
Sat Feb. 9 @ Washington (W)
Sat Feb. 16 @ Southern Cal (W)
Thu Feb. 21 Oregon St (W)
Sat Feb. 23 Oregon (W)
Thu Feb. 28 @ ASU (W)
Sat Mar. 1 @ Arizona (#)
Thu Mar.6 California (W)
Sat Mar. 8 Stanford (W)
Wed 03/12-15 Pac-10 Tournament
Thu 03/20-4/7 MADNESS
I have marked the games that I think are going to be "Ws." Note I am not predicting any losses. Since I firmly believe that with Coach Howland in charge we are capable of winning every single one of our games. But I think that is unrealistic. And I believe there are going to be number of games that, due to various factors, could be considered "tossups" (marked in "#") in which our underdog opponents will pull out upsets.

So you can see from my tally I can see 25 wins during the regular season. Here again are my toss ups:
v. Maryland/Michigan St. (in CBE)
@ Michigan
@ Oregon
@ Stanford
@ Arizona
I don't think I need to explain why I consider road games against Oregon or Stanford or WSU as "toss ups." Both of those teams are going to be loaded with all their key starters back from last season. Duckies despite the loss of Brooks, are coming back with Porter, Hairston, Taylor and Leunen.  WSU hung on to its talented young coach, who will be looking for an encore season. I am sure I don't need add too much about a Stanford team who is getting all of its top 5 scorers back and also handed us a nightmare at Maples during the regular season.  And those teams are going to have crazy home crowds behind them, who will be looking to rush the court in the hopes of an upset victory over what will most likely be a top-5 Ben Ball squad.

I also have the game against Arizona on March 1st as a toss up. Make no mistake. No one from UCLA is afraid of the Mildcats. But they are going to be out for blood. Expect to read tons of stories like this about Arizona was toughened by hiring an assistant coach like Kevin O'Neil, who all one a sudden is teaching Buddinger and co the virtues of playing defense. Those guys are going to be absolutely lathered into a frenzy on March 1st, hoping to "upset" UCLA. And that's the exact way we like it.

To come think of it, I should have road games against Washington, ASU, and Cal marked up as tough games, all of whom have enough talent to pull off Dorrellian performances ala our football game against Cal two weekends ago.

I have Michigan State marked in this category because I think there is a good chance we are going to take on those guys in St. Louis (if we can get through a decent Maryland squad). I have the highest amount of respect for Coach Izzo, who I think is Howland of the Midwest. He is going to have some ballers like Drew Neitzel, Raymar Morgan coming back, who will be blended in with freshman talents such as Chris Allen and Durrell Summers. They also love playing that physical brand of hoops we have all become so familiar with during last few years. So that game is going to be tough.

I also think the Michigan game at Ann Arbor will be a tough one as well, now that they have a very good coach in John Beilein. Coach Beilein is of course the king of that 1-3-1 half court trap, which has given our warriors a pretty difficult time the last two years. It is going to be fun, fun, and maybe not so much fun to see how we handle it with his Michigan team this season. But by no means is it going to be an easy "W." I think those guys will be fired up and if we go in there expecting an easy game, we might experience West Virginia all over again (although to be fair to us we did play that game at Morgantown minus DC, which goes to a point I will elaborate below).

Also, I am not going to chalk up automatic Ws from the Pac-10 and the NCAA tourneys. Those are a crapshoot. And although in my heart I believe we can run the table in both of those tourneys, my brain after almost two decades of March Madness knows better than to expect 9 wins.

So with all that in consideration, I can see us posting a record that starts from a baseline of 25 W's. We have all the ingredients for an incredible season. But, at the same time, I believe we also have some issues.  Here are some of my concerns wrt to our team (yes, I have a bunch of them) heading into this season:
  • Do we have enough depth at PG?
  • Will Luuuc fall in love with the idea of him being a 3 point shooter?
  • Will Kevin Love be able to adjust to the defensive pace of Ben Ball?
  • Will Michael Roll's (smart) bombs hit their targets with a little more consistency?
  • Will Dragovic be able to give us some decent minutes?
  • Will (free!) Westbrook get a little more offensive latitude compared to his freshman season?
  • Will there be improvements in the FT shooting of Luc, RW, AA2, and Mata?
  • Are we going to see the Shipp of early '06-07 or are we going to see the Shipp of late '06-07?
And those are just some of the questions I can think of off the top of my head. Lord knows the worries that goes through Coach Howland's mind everyday, who I am confident will not be sleeping well through the whole season.

My biggest worry is depth at PG. I think RW will do a good job backing up DC at 2. I imagine DC is going to be stronger and bring more energy than his second year when he did an exceptional job of carrying the load at PG. However, I hope, just in case, RW is ready to step up. He averaged about 9 mins last season. I think he will be ready to step up this year when he is called upon, given he has had one year of Ben Ball in him. I would imagine we could see instances where Shipp might also be playing the point, kind of like how AA did at times last season to spell DC. In any instance, lets all knock on our tables, desks, or whatever wooden furniture we can find profusely wishing DC a strong, healthy junior season in Westwood. We are going to need him.

I will use the depth at PG topic to segue into my point on RW. I think there were many of us who thought perhaps RW could have gotten a few more minutes (may be at 2) last year. I imagine Coach Howland knew exactly what he was doing in terms of how he allocated his minutes. I'd think this year we will get to see more of RW, allowing him to bring that constant motor off the bench leading to defensive sparks and offensive explosions on the fast break. God knows he has the speed to catch those outlet passes.

Speaking of those outlet passes, I am not going to spend too much time writing about Mr. Love. I am sure I will do enough of that during the season. But I think the key point about Mr. Love will be watching how he fares in his defensive game during the out of conference season, getting him ready for the Pac-10. It is going to be very interesting to see him play if UCLA gets an anticipated matchup against Izzo's physical Spartans early in the season. And also how he performs defensively when we get to take on Coach Beilein's Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

Now, one thing we are expecting from Love is his presence around the post will open up some room for our long range bombers. Cue Mr. Roll, who shot about 36% from behind the arc last season. I imagine Roll is going to get a little more breathing space this season and he should get some really tasty looks. If he can improve that percentage and knock down those bombs with a little more consistency we are going to be in business. One thing I do like about Roll is I think this kid is a little more than just a shooter. He can play pretty good defense (he wouldn't be getting the minutes if he didn't) and he has a decent move, often allowing him to get close looks from mid range. If he can keep playing defense, knock down some opportune mid range Js (like he did against Pitt in crunch time), and sometimes take it to the hoop, he is going to be on his way of being a very solid/complete Ben Ball warrior.

Speaking of warriors, let's talk about the Prince. We are hearing his knees are healthier and his "jumper" has gotten better. Honestly, though, I want the Luc I saw his freshman year. The Luc who was a jitterbug around the rum, hauling down boards, picking up boatloads of garbage points through offensive rebounds, playing a lock down ferocious defense. I hope Luc concentrates on those things first before getting too enamored with the idea of being an NBA player. I think he will get his chances to knock down some open Js. However, he really needs to do that within the flow of Ben Ball's offense and not force the issue.

Speaking of playing within his game, that brings up Shipp. Shipp was maddening early and during the midpoint of last regular season. I think its not a stretch to say he was trying to be a little too cute/free flowing with his game early in the season, when he forgot what made him so good his freshman year. But once he started focusing on his defense, playing within his game late in the season and through the Dance, he gained the form of freshman year Shipp. I am hoping and praying we get that end of the year Shipp from last season, right off the bat this season. We need that Shipp, if he wants to emerge as a leader of this team. Instead, if we get a Shipp who is concerned about his place in the NBA draft (and this goes for Luc, DC, and Love), we could have a prickly start to the season. We will see.

My other huge worry about our team is the FT shooting of Luc (57%), AA2 (57%), RW (54%), and Mata Real (37%). I know we have decent depth with a very dependable bench. But given the horrific caliber of Pac-10 referees, I know there is going to be times during the season when FT shooting of these players is going to be key. Those guys need to improve on last year's horrific percentages. There is no way around it.

The key here again is Luc. He shot 72 percent in his freshman year. It would be really helpful if he can get his FT% back to around that range. Also, in the same boat, I find it frustrating when a backcourt player of RW's caliber is shooting under the 60 percent. He needs to get that number around the 70s. And, if can Mata Real can get that number up in the 50s, we could be on to something.

Also, some of the other things going through my mind is whether Dragovic is going to be able to bring some defense, and how Keefe's rehab is going to come through in the next few weeks. Keefe was one of the players I was most excited about before he got injured. Again, just like Shipp it seemed like the proverbial light bulb went on for him during the Dance. It will take a while for him to get back into sync, once his injury completely heals up. In fact, it may take a while. But if he can contribute some towards the last weeks of the regular season, it would be a big help.

I am sure there are number of other concerns I am not listing. I have heard people worrying about who is going to be the emotional leader of this team, now that AA is gone. I think it's a legit concern. The obvious choices here are either DC or Shipp, since they have shown a knack for making clutch shots. But I wouldn't be shocked if I see some leadership from someone like Kevin Love as well. He has that Cade McNown aura about him. It just seems something that comes to him naturally. Besides, despite all these concerns, for some reason I feel lot calmer about this worry with Coach Howland in charge:

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images via the LAT

So all we need to do right now is just sit back and enjoy the games and the moments:

I have no doubt there could be tough stretches. Pac-10 road games are not going to be easy. We don't own every home arena like we own the Pauley West out near South Central. So there will be set backs.

But I have no doubt Coach Howland is going to make sure he has the team in best position possible to contend for the Pac-10 championship, which will get us ready for another shot at number 12.

Here in BN we are planning to ride along with our Warriors and have fun starting tomorrow night.