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Getting Ready For 08-09 Ben Ball Season: Predictions/Expectations & Concerns

With just 11 days to go till tip off,  time for us to go through what has become somewhat of an annual rite of passage here on Bruin Nation. We started this in 2005, and continued it in both 2006 and 2007. Well, I think each of those three seasons turned out pretty good (with lots of fist pounds, Ben Ball style):

Photo Credit: Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images (via mikireynolds' photostream(flickr))

So, I think for mojo purposes, we have no choice but go to through the exercise again in 2008. Again given all the discussions we have had on BN over the years, I don’t see the need to go through the differences between pre season expectations and predictions. You can look through all our previous posts (dealing with both Ben Ball and football) re. discussion on those terms. As we go through the schedule, all we are doing is trying to come up with a baseline number of wins we expect from this year’s schedule, come up with a list of our main concerns and questions, and then take it from there.

It is undisputed now that Coach Howland has thoroughly reestablished UCLA as one of the elite programs in the country. Given what Howland has built in Westwood, these posts are even more fun to write because we can do so with the confidence that we have a coach who not only has all the questions we have on our mind in his own radar, but has every detail around this program covered. Still I think it is important for us to be aware that despite all the good news around our program, there are issues Howland has to address, before dreaming about another magical run through the regular and the tournament season. With that in mind here is a very rough predictions for this upcoming season:

Wed., Nov. 12, 2K Sports Classic First Round (w)
Thu., Nov. 13, 2K Sports Classic Second Round  (#)
Thu., Nov. 20, 2K Sports Classic Semifinals (#)
Fri., Nov. 21, 2K Sports Classic Final (#)
Sat., Nov. 29, Florida International (w)
Thu., Dec. 4, @Texas (#)
Sun., Dec. 7, Cal State Northridge (w)
Sat., Dec. 13, DePaul @ Wooden Classic (w)
Wed., Dec. 17, Loyola Marymount (w)
Sat., Dec. 20, Mercer (w)
Tue., Dec. 23, Wyoming (w)
Sun., Dec. 28, Louisiana Tech (w)
Fri., Jan. 2, @ Oregon State (w)
Sun., Jan. 4, @ Oregon (#)
Sun., Jan. 11, @ USC (w)
Thu., Jan. 15, Arizona (w)
Sat., Jan. 17, Arizona State (w)
Thu., Jan. 22, @ Washington State (#)
Sat., Jan. 24, @ Washington (#)
Thu., Jan. 29, California (w)
Sat., Jan. 31, Stanford (w)
Wed., Feb. 4, USC (w)
Sat., Feb. 7, Notre Dame (w)
Thu., Feb. 12, @ Arizona State (#)
Sat., Feb. 14, @ Arizona (#)
Thu., Feb. 19, Washington (w)
Sat., Feb. 21, Washington State (w)
Thu., Feb. 26, @ Stanford (w)
Sat., Feb. 28, @ California (#)
Thu., Mar. 5, Oregon State (w)
Sat., Mar. 7, Oregon (w)
Mar. 11-14, Pac-10 Tournament @ Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
Mar. 19-22, NCAA First and Second Round
Mar. 26-29, NCAA Regional
Apr. 4 & 6, NCAA Final Four

So just like last year I didn’t mark any game as losses because I believe with Coach Howland in charge and veterans like DC and JS leading on the court, our team will play to win every game. That said, I did mark the following games as toss ups (#):

Thu., Nov. 13, 2K Sports Classic Second Round  (#)
Thu., Nov. 20, 2K Sports Classic Semifinals (#)
Fri., Nov. 21, 2K Sports Classic Final (#)
Thu., Dec. 4, @Texas (#)
Sun., Jan. 4, @ Oregon (#)
Thu., Jan. 22, @ Washington State (#)
Sat., Jan. 24, @ Washington (#)
Thu., Feb. 12, @ Arizona State (#)
Sat., Feb. 14, @ Arizona (#)
Sat., Feb. 28, @ California (#)

Let’s start with the Sports Classic tournament. If you haven’t seen it yet, here is the bracket (pdf file).  It’s not too difficult to discern from that bracket that the organizers are dreaming about a UCLA-Michigan semifinal, leading up to a UCLA-Duke final in NYC. Well that sounds nice, but for a team with 5 freshmen and serious questions re. front court (more on that below), it would be very unwise to all of us to look past the opening round games.

I especially think the Bruins might have a difficult game against either Weber State or Miami (OH), two mid-major teams that are capable of pulling off an upset against a young team. I am actually more concerned about this home game than the ones v. Notre Dame and other quality Pac-10 opponents rest of the season because I think it will present the first real test for our freshmen in terms of facing a tourney caliber opposition. Otherwise, I feel pretty confident about rest of our home schedule as the freshmen will go through their development under Howland.

If the Bruins get to NYC after winning the first two games, they will probably take on a Michigan team with Beilein’s 1-3-1 trap zone, that has always created problems for our Ben Ball warriors (remember we had to scrap out a win against them last year after losing to Beilein’s West Va team for two years in a row). I would expect Michigan to be a much improved team in Beilein’s second year who will also have talented kids like Manny Harris, DeShawn Sims and Kelvin Grady to build on his first year.  And then if we are lucky to get to the final against a team like Duke, we will take them on in a setting at MSG, which I think will have a crowd leaning towards Duke (we will see). Duke has their front court issues to address but they will have their share of talents and experience in kids like Singler, Scheyer, Paulus, Thomas, Zoubek playing under K.

As far as rest of non conference season is concerned, Texas obviously stands out as the toughest challenge during the non conference season. Augustin is gone but Abrams is back along with Connor Atchley, Damion James, and Justin Mason. It will be a tough challenge for DC and rest of his team-mates to pull out a win in Austin, but if they are focused and locked in remembering what took place at Pauley last season, we will have a shot. Still right now I look at this game as a toss up.

As for rest of the Pac-10,  I marked up the Oregon game as a toss up because I think the Mac Court in Eugene is probably the toughest road venue in the conference. Oregon lost a lot of talent with the departures of Hairston, Leunen and Bryce Taylor. They are one of the questions marks in the Pac-10. However, they will still present a threat on the road with speed junior Tajuan Porter leading the charge at pg. If they can get solid contributions from Joevan Catron and Kamyron Brown, I think that game will turn out to be tough. Bruins have learned the hard way over the years (from 1994 (the year we won the title) from 2006) what happens when not playing with focus and intensity in that arena.

As for rest of the Pac-10, Arizona under Lute Olson are going to be hungry for revenge for all the recent beat downs by Ben Ball warriors. Again I always like our chances, but it will still be a challenge to go up against a team featuring talents of  Budinger, Wise, and Jordan Hill. Meanwhile, ASU is poised to have their best season under Sendek era with two returning stars in James Pendergraph and James Harden.

As for other Pac-10 teams Monty’s return to Bay Area should make the Bears interesting (and a tough out on their home court). Washington schools will not be pushovers either. Wazzu lost their heat and soul through the departures of Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. But they still have a solid coach who will have solid nucleus of upperclassmen of Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes, and Daven Harmeling to put together another well coached and fundamentally sound team. Washington Huskies will have Jon Brockman anchoring the middle. Plus they are getting back Venoy Overton, who DC might see in his night mares time to time. Throw in the mix with a like Justin Dentmon and Quincy Pondexter, this is a team that will once again make our lives difficult if not nightmarish on the road.

So with all that, I see starting out with a baseline of 21 W’s with this year’s team. Last year the baseline was set at 25 W’s. Just like last year, I think our final win total will far exceed that baseline (which I think is the worst case scenario), however, there are number of issues our coaches have to be concerned about heading into this season. Meriones already laid out his concern last week. Here are questions on my mind heading into this season:

Darren Collison’s Decision Making

I am sure some of you are going WTF from the title of this section, but please allow me to elaborate.  It's a pretty good bet that DC is going to finish his senior season as a consensus All American. IMHO he is the point guard not just in the Pac-10, but in the entire country. Again I will cite to the following comments from Coach Howland re. why he is the ultimate leader around which a coach would want to build his team around:

"Darren's going to have the ball in his hands a lot, and he's always been our defensive point guard. This is a kid that could lead the conference in three-point and free-throw percent-age, assists and steals."

Yet notwithstanding DC's greatness, I think there is some room for improvement for this great Bruin guard. I think if DC has an Achilles heel it is his decisiveness as the floor general while we are on offense. Let me see if I can explain this. From what I have seen from DC in last three years, it seems at times he needs to be a little more authorative around his decisions on whether to take the shot or pass it off to his team-mates. In his defense in his first three years at UCLA, in terms of scoring he had more prolific scorers in AA, JF and then KL (a once a generation freshman) to which he often gave up the ball to. However, at times it seemed like UCLA offense lagged a bit as DC was waiting around to make his final decisions. So, I think this year we might see a little less of that as DC will be one of the primary scorers in our offense. In that case, I think DC needs to be a just tick faster in making his decisions on whether to launch or drive for his shot rather than passing off to another team-mate. We need DC to be more aggressive in decision making and hopefully his unquestioned stature as the senior leader will make the process a little easier.

Consistency from Josh Shipp

This one is easy. This could be the year in which we get to see JS from his freshman season. I have already alluded to this in my post re. Blue Ribbon yearbook's UCLA preview. JS has probably been the most maligned (somewhat unfairly IMHO) Ben Ball warrior from Coach Howland's (now legendary) first recruiting class. When he burst into the scene along with JF, AA, LMR we instantly fell in love with his defensive intensity, his nose for the ball, and always picking up points through hustle (which endeared LRMAM to us in his freshman season).

Sadly after three seasons of surgeries, nagging injuries and recovery, we never really got to see the JS from his freshman season on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, we have had beat reporters and message board posters constantly psycho analyzing this kid's ability to nail down three pointers (even though he had his share of clutch shots). Also on a fair point we all have been collectively frustrated by JS's tendency to not match the defensive tenacity that exemplifies a prototype Ben Ball Warrior who brings it not just in every game but every play.

Now that JS is fully healthy there is a chance we can see JS from his freshman season, who foreshadowed the kind of Ben Ball we have been accustomed to courtesy of warriors such as LRMAM and RW last three seasons Interestingly CBH has dropped hint that we may see JS spend some time at the 4 (which caught JS by surprise). That might not be a bad deal because it could be a move to field a guard heavy lineup exerting even more tenacious defensive pressure. Remember Howland did the same thing in his second year playing DT at the 4.

Ultimately, I think if JS were to have a memorable last season at UCLA, it will have to be centered around his total commitment to all out defense, sheer tenacity and hustle, that will allow him to emerge as the replacement of LRMAM in this year's squad. If he brings that defensive tenacity and then let his offensive instincts take over within the scheme of Howland's offense, JS might break out with one of the more memorable final year, a Bruin senior has put together in some time. Given what the kid has been through you can bet we all are going to be rooting for him. This brings me to the next point.

Defensive Stopper

So who will be the defensive stopper of this year's edition of Ben Ball warriors. Until last year it was unquestionably AA. Then last year it was a combination of RW and LRMAM. If we need to neutralize opponent's primary scoring threat, Howland would usually sic RW or LRMAM as his shut down defender. We saw how LRMAM's absence often impacted not just the physical presence in our interior defense, but all the aggressiveness of our perimeter. So who will step up this year and take the responsibility of the primary attack dogs in Howland's defensive scheme?

DC? JS? DC will have no choice but to step up with his defense and this will be crucial because he has had difficulties with faster and more physical guards (just think about the Memphis game from last season or the matchups against the guards from Texas and Oregon (on Mac Court). I mentioned JS's need to focus on every play, not just ever game. I think the success of this year's UCLA basketball team will be hugely dependent on the veteran leadership of DC and JS on defense (more so than offense). They have the responsibility to carry on the tradition of defensive tenacity that Coach Howland has established thanks to the efforts of AA, LRMAM, RW, and LMR.

Productive Minutes From AA2

I mentioned LMR above. This is where AA2 comes in. We are going to need productive mins from AA2 for this team to contend for the Pac-10 title and position itself with a favorable high seed from the West. I love the intensity and aggression AA2 brings to every game. It's apparent that Coach Howland absolutely love the way he is all about defense. But from the early practice reports this season, it is apparent he wants AA2 to bring more to the table than his hard nosed (no pun intended here) defense around the rim.  We can't have AA2 go into his bull in a china shop routine he often fell into time to time last season by fouling out too fast. We had that luxury last season because we had a kid like KL and the experience of LMR. With a inexperience and young front court, we don't have that luxury any more. I don't think AA2 needs to tone down his intensity, but he just needs to figure out a way to be a little more disciplined and make his minutes more productive through his defense and rebounds. Also, he should probably chuck the idea of he is some kind of jump shooter.

James Keefe Taking The Next Steps

As eager as everyone is about the start of this basketball season, not sure how many are looking forward to it as much as JK. JK is yet another Ben Ball warrior who is coming into this season at 100 percent (knock on wood) for the first time in while. I am sure many remember here how he got hurt last off season and had to go through shoulder surgery, which really stunted his expected development in his sophomore year. After deciding to red shirt year, per Howland's request JK burned his medical redshirt year, and came on strong late during the stretch run. He particular stepped up in a big way, when LRMAM went down with ankle injury against Southern Cal during the Pac-10 tournament. Not only did he chip in with solid scoring, he came up with key rebounds and solid defense. According to off season reports, JK is now up to 237 lbs and Howland has been fired up about his off season work outs.

I think JK is the guy to watch out for as someone who might have a breakout season. I like how this kid always plays within Howland's scheme. He does all the little things – set picks, box out, always look for open team-mates – that often doesn't show up in the score board. To go with that I think he has decent offensive skills down low, which until now has not been needed given the options we have has last few years. If JK can take the next step and perform at the same level he did during both the Pac-10 and NCAA tourneys last season on more consistent basis, it will be a huge boost to this year's team.

Freshmen Development

Speaking of development, this brings me to our Fab Five. I would strongly caution everyone here expecting from our freshman what we saw out of KL last season.

Let’s make this simple. The kind of production and contribution we saw out of KL last season was not normal. KL was special. He was once in a generational talent who doesn't come around often. I am not sure how long it will take until we get to see another kid like KL, but it would be incredibly unfair and unreasonable to hold our current freshman blue chippers to the same level of expectations as we had for KL (and if anyone makes that kind of comparison, he or she will be banned for stupidity from this community).

So now that is out of the way … it will be interesting to see how Howland brings these new cubs up. I think it will probably be JH who might break in the lineup right away but I think it will also take a talent like him a while to adjust to the defensive intensity required to earn Coach Howland's total trust. I would also urge a lot of patience when we are watching Bobo and DG. Those guys are very raw in terms of their defensive and offensive skills on both sides of the court. We have already read reports about how Howland is starting from scratch with these kids in teaching skills such as how to hedge screens, which is pre requisite for big guys playing Ben Ball defense.  No doubt they will get mins early because of our lack of experience depth on the front court, however it will take them a while (perhaps more than a year to get settled in).

As for ML and JA, JA is still recovering from a nagging groin injury and remember even a super star like RW was only averaging 9.0 mins a game as a true freshman under Howland.

So, I would pipe down the expectations level if I were fanboys of ML and JA. They will get some mins and opportunities to make their contributions this upcoming season, however, they will have to earn those mins by their commitment to total defense in practices and during those early OOC games (which might not look too enticing who don't appreciate the total nuances of Howland's scheduling philosophy) in preparation for the conference season.

Health Issues

I will end my run through the questions by going through health issues. Here Mike Roll is the biggest question mark. We have talked about the health issues of JS and JK above. Those kids are finally healthy (knocking on wood). The situation is unclear about MR. While MR is feeling better and has been working out and most likely will be practicing, it is not certain (I haven't seen any reports yet) whether he will ever be completely recovered from the nasty plantar faciatis injury he suffered last season. I also like MR's game a lot. His 3 point shooting has suffered a lot in last two years due to injury issues, but he also does all the little things which includes playing defense, setting picks, that has endeared him to Coach Howland in recent years. I hope for MR's sake he is feeling better and if he can rediscover his rhythm as a shooter while working through his injury issues, it will be a big help for the team.

Also, it's a bummer that ND is dealing with a nagging health issue (cyst involving left foot and ankle) to start the season. I had heard that he was having a good off season following last year's tough one when he had hernia surgeries.

Let's hope ND's injury will get healed up and he will be ready to contribute soon. For him to contribute though, not surprisingly it will have to start on that defensive end. I don't think he is going to earn his mins by jacking up long bombs whenever he gets in. He will have to earn his mins the old fashioned way. If his latest injury doesn't set him back too much, hopefully he will be able to translate the hard off season work (which I heard he put in last few months) into meaningful mins in terms of solid defense and opportunistic scoring this season.

Same goes for JA, whose health issues I linked to above. I imagine Coach Howland will work him in slowly making sure he is completely healed up before asking him to step in. The good news is that they are progressing well and early reports sound encouraging. But given how physical and rough (for good reasons) Coach Howland’s practices are inside Pauley, we always have to be on the look out for issues related to nagging bumps and bruises.

So, those are some of the issues I can think of as we get underway in Coach Howland's sixth season in Westwood. I believe given all the questions we have to address, a top-5 ranking for our team could be a bit too high. I think are probably more somewhere in the top-10. However, I have full confidence that Coach Howland and his staff are all over these questions and others we haven't even thought off heading into this season. They will be chipping away every hour in practice and in the film rooms, getting these warriors prepared for what should hopefully be another fun ride in Westwood:


Photo Source: mikireynolds' photostream (flickr)

Before we start dreaming about those moments again, the goal right now for this team is to improve game by game, and then get itself in best position to compete and defend our conference title in February and March. Then, if they can get themselves a favorable seed in the Western region, based on a consistent development and improvement through the regular season, we will buckle up and once again take our chances with our head coach and his Ben Ball warriors.