It is October and it is time for previews and predictions to start rolling in. We will delve into a couple of them but the bottom line is simple: Howland needs to win the PAC 12 and make a serious tournament run. The good news for UCLA is there is a reason to think Howland can make a miraculous run and with kids like Zach Lavine recruited maintain the run going forward. The bad news is there are reasons for even the most optimistic person to be wary of Howland's chances. Two reviews seemingly tell the story.
Unbelievably Jeff Goodman writes a positive and optimistic preview of UCLA. Goodman has been one of the leaders in the Shabazz/Anderson/Parker are never going to play at UCLA and why-would-anyone- chose-UCLA- in-the-first-place crowd. I don't know if guilt from being so anti-UCLA made him write the piece or if this is a sign that Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson are going to be eligible right away and he is jumping on the bandwagon. He explains Howland's tenure warts and all and comes out optimistic on the future. In a related piece they write Shabazz and Kyle Anderson will " propel the Bruins back into title contention."
On the other side is an NBC sports review, that brings up the very good point about eligibility. It is now October. Anderson has not officially been cleared yet and the Shabazz situation is no clearer now than before. This review picks UCLA number 25 but the writer states we will finish "fourth or fifth place finish in the conference" and "need to make a run" to avoid the NIT. Not sure on the math of that but let's break down both reviews.
1. The Point Guard position
The NBC article puts it most negatively:
Howland has said that Drew will start for him and that he is the team's "most indispensable" player. This is the same guy that left North Carolina in the middle of the season, unannounced, after watching the Tar Heels improve drastically when he got benched for Kendall Marshall. The irony? Drew may actually be the best option at the point for this Bruins team. Anderson is a terrific play-maker and a special passer, but he's also 6-foot-8 and nicknamed "Slo-Mo" for a reason. If he's playing the point, who is guarding Mark Lyons, Jio Fontan and Chasson Randle?
But NBC may be missing the point (pun intended), Drew will start to play the point guard on defense, not offense. As Goodman explains with a different comparison to Kendall Marshall:
Then there's Kyle Anderson, a 6-9 point forward who passes the ball in a similar manner former North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall exhibited in his two years in Chapel Hill. Anderson, no matter what position he plays in Howland's offense, will have the ball in his hands often because his best asset is his ability to make those around him better.
In this story Anderson is compared to the best recent college passing point guard. In other stories, Kyle is compared to the arguably the greatest point guard of all time, Magic Johnson. At the end of the day, you have to believe Kyle leads UCLA in assists and "will have the ball in his hands" as Goodman says.
2. The projected starting lineup.
NBC lays out the starting lineup which will make many Bruins fans cringe G Larry Drew II, G Shabazz Muhammad, F Kyle Anderson, F Travis Wear, F David Wear. Yep, to put it must cruelly: two freshman and the North Carolina rejects.
As NBC concludes:
The bottom-line is that I simply do not like the make-up of this team. Howland made a name for himself as a head coach by putting together gritty, blue-collar teams that won games by controlling the pace of the game and digging in defensively. Does the rotation listed above really look like one that will be able to out-physical and out-tough anyone?
But Goodman takes another point, put broadly Anderson and Shabazz make any team very good by themselves regardless of the other guys. Because of Kyle and Shabazz:
Now Josh Smith's weight will no longer be the primary focus at UCLA. The Wear twins - David and Travis - won't have to be anything more than they truly are, which is perform as solid players. North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II can be a role player, maybe even a bench guy. That's because UCLA has added arguably the two best freshmen in the country.
Goodman wrote how Anderson makes everyone around him better, well Shabazz is just a force of nature. As the Sporting News says making him a pre-season second team All American before he has even played a college game:
Though just a freshman, Muhammad certainly is the most prolific scorer for a UCLA team looking for a return to prominence. He attacks the rim with abandon and has a good enough jumper to keep opponents from sagging down to obstruct his path to the basket.
So basically Goodman argues two stars and three role players equals a PAC 12 title. I do like that Goodman puts the Wears in perspective. No, they are not the McDonald All Americans future superstars that many people thought in high school, but they are solid but not spectacular players. IMO, the Wears get too much credit from some in the media and too much blame from some fans. They are what they are and it is up to Howland to properly use them.
New rumors are spreading that Smith is looking thinner and hope springs eternal, for as Goodman's Athlon Sports says on Smith:
If he comes back for Year 3 leaner and meaner, UCLA could contend for the Final Four.
But that's just it, everything on Smith now is rumors. And although harsh it is hard to cite "facts" to disagree with NBC when they write:
With his inability to shed the pounds given what's on the line for him - athletically and monetarily - by remaining out of shape, I don't think it's difficult to make the assumption that he has a serious overeating problem, which is an addiction and a disease. That's not a joking matter. But it is an issue that leads me to believe we'll never see Smith - who, given his size, soft hands and nimble feet, could be the best big man in the country - live up to his potential. I'd expect the Wears twins and Tony Parker to all be playing over Smith by January.
That is cruel but this is one of those heart and head situations. Your heart is rooting for Smith as a person and a UCLA fan, but your head is saying don't bet on it.
4. Bottom Line
Neither the optimistic or the pessimistic reviews matter much at the end of the day. It is real down to what Howland says to Goodman:
"I'm excited about this season," he says. "But we need to go out and prove it. Rankings don't mean anything. People can project all they want, but it's about performance. I think we have a chance to be a really good team, but we need to go out and win games." . . .
"It's all about expectations," Howland says. "And I'm OK with that."
Now we'll see if this recruiting class, unlike the ones a few years ago, can help the Bruins live up to the hype.
Howland better perform to the high end of those expectations or UCLA fans expect him gone.