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UCLA Basketball Junkie Talk: Four Things for Fans to Think About

UCLA needs Joshua Smith #34 to dunk and be able to dunk next year regularly.  (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
UCLA needs Joshua Smith #34 to dunk and be able to dunk next year regularly. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
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Every Wednesday for the spring and summer we will do a basketball post and analysis. The first is here and the second here. This Wednesday we will address a few of the topics on everyone's mind or at least what has been on ours. Today Tydides joins me to talk UCLA hoops in a little back and forth by two UCLA fans who can't wait for the season to start. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

Topic 1: What will the starting line-up be?

TYDIDES: I'm going to go with Anderson, Shabazz, Powell, TWear, Smith.

Anderson has to start. Howland hasn't had a true offensive playmaker in forever, and the addition of Kyle Anderson gives him one. Given what I assume is going to be a very offensively oriented team, PG play is going to be of more importance than it has ever been in the Howland era. Defensively, we are going to have to hide him, because he can't guard 1s or 2s. He may be able to guard a 3 and I guess that's where I'd put him at the start of the season

Shabazz is Shabazz. He starts.

I'm going to put some faith in Powell that he has developed his game and made the sophomore leap. Our biggest frustration with him last year was his not just tendency, but obsession with settling for jump shots. It's nice that he's a good rebounder but that's not enough to justify having him in the game. Even without the best first step in the world, he still could have beaten at least half of his defenders in the Pac-12 off the dribble. Sending him to the 3 on offense puts him against a player who is almost guaranteed to be slower than him. I want Powell in the lane, making people pay for paying too much attention to Shabazz. Defensively, he guards whomever Anderson cannot.

Travis Wear is my 4. He just seems better than his brother in every aspect. It's not by much, but I suppose that's a good thing, since we won't lose much subbing him in for his brother. Yes, subbing in. A double Wear lineup will not be acceptable in any way, shape, or form.

I'm crossing every finger and toe that I have that Smith comes in to practice under 300 pounds. As big as Shabazz's commitment was, he only makes this team potentially elite. The only way to fulfill that potential is for Joshua Smith to be the dominating force that he showed flashes of in his freshman year and up in Seattle and Pullman last year. Other teams will have talents comparable to, but probably not as good as Shabazz. There is no other team that has a Josh Smith.

DCBRUINS: Your lineup is close to what I would want. I agree except for Powell. Let me be clear, I agree with what you said about Powell and want the answer to be Powell. Powell has the best potential. However, I am going to go with Howland starting Larry Drew II. Larry Drew II can play defense on a good PG from day 1. He has to buy into Howland's system and more importantly Anderson being the primary ball handler. If he does that (not guaranteed), I think Howland starts him.

Good news is we are hearing Smith is getting in shape.

TYDIDES: What it boils down to is that both of our solutions are about defense. Specifically, defending the man that Anderson will not be able to when he's on the floor. I'm in "wait-and-see" mode on Drew on a variety of topics, and if you're confident that he can defend as you say, then I don't see much of an issue starting Drew. I am somewhat skeptical given the defensive history of UNC transfers (Wears, Morrison) but I recognize that that's unfair to Drew.

Topic 2: What will the 2012-13 offense look like?

DCBRUINS: I think Howland's history may give us a clue. In 2010-11 Ben Howland yelled "Push It" over and over again to start the season 9-6. By the start of the Pac-10, UCLA was not running much and went 14-5 the rest of the way as Josh Smith took over as arguably the best and most dominate offensive player.

UCLA started running that season because it fit the game of the player everyone thought was going to be the MVP, Tyler Honeycutt, and kept the ball out of the hands of our weakest player, the unknown JC point guard Lazeric Jones. Part of the reason for this is Tyler was a very good defensive rebounder who finished in the top 10 in the PAC 10 in rebounding. The idea was Tyler and the other good ball handling big (Reeves Nelson who also finished in the top 10 in rebounding) where the guys whose hands you wanted the ball instead of the question mark at Point Guard in Lazeric Jones. Also it is great when the guys who rebound the ball can start the break. Two problems: one good and one bad. Tyler was too laid back and became THTO. The other good problem was Smith's emergence. UCLA stopped "pushing it" and started pounding it to Smith more, not just to shoot but work the offense through. In UCLA its best game that season, the last game at old Pauley, Smith even tied for the team lead in assists.

I give this prelude to say now we are hearing UCLA rumors that UCLA may be looking to push it again. While I do not think a Ben Howland team will ever become a run and gun team, I think there may be more reason to think it will work this time. I think Kyle Anderson will lead UCLA in defensive rebounds and assists next year. Kyle will make the failed experiment of 2010 with Honeycutt work in 2012-3.

Of course the other reason is Shabazz is the best finisher Howland has had. No one attacks the rim like Shabazz. So I think there is a good chance this is a higher scoring UCLA team that does run noticeable more.

TYDIDES: What we see often in the NBA with deep and diverse teams is a shift in offensive strategy between their starters and their second unit. Few college teams will possess the kind of depth of talent to make this workable, but I think we'll see a miniature version of this play out this year. Basically, the team without Josh Smith in the game should and had better look like what you envision. The team with Smith in the game should play a slower inside out game. Even teams that knew Smith was out of shape last year still often sent help his way, so we know he can still command attention and open the floor up for his teammates if we get him touches.

I don't think this will cause much inconsistency because, sadly, I have a hard time imagining even an in-shape Smith staying on the floor for 25+ minutes a game. I just want him to give us 20-25 minutes of all out dominant ball.

DCBRUINS: The showtime Lakers of the early 80s had two offenses at the same time. First choice was run with Magic. If that failed, it was half court through Kareem. Not saying anything that great as again the Bruins will never run that much, just more than the past. But your point on Smith is well taken.

Topic 3: What's different about this top-ranked class?

TYDIDES: We've had a top ranked class before and the results were disastrous, so the obvious question becomes why shouldn't we brace ourselves for disappointment here.

On the positive side, we know that many of the problems from that class centered around attitude, both from the newcomers and from the returnees. I like what I'm hearing about Shabazz, Anderson, and Parker in terms of attitude, and I haven't read up enough on Adams despite him being our first commitment, but that he's still here (compared to Dominic Artis) suggests that he's comfortable with whatever role Howland has told him he'd play, making him less of a chemistry risk. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he belongs with the previous three players.

The attitude of the returnees toward the newcomers should also be a positive compared to 2008. For starters, the returnees frankly haven't accomplished anything in their time here and have no reason or standing to "pull rank" on their juniors. The 2008 veterans had been to the mountain top, and if they bristled at the newbies coming in and trying to impose their will on a successful formula, I wouldn't really blame them. Now, the entire team is in the same boat, trying to right a ship that has taken on a lot of water, and perhaps that monumental task ahead will unite them rather than divide them.

Obviously I'm still very concerned about Larry Drew II, because in practical terms he's a part of this class as well. The way he left UNC was troubling, and as we've learned from the Reeves Nelson saga, chemistry is a fragile thing, and it only takes one guy to make it all fall apart. I think we need to be vigilant of early signs of malcontent from Drew II if he's not playing well or isn't getting minutes.

DCBRUINS: Really good point on the 2008 returnees vs. the new class. Completely different classes in other respects as well. The 2008 class contained Bobo Morgan who may be the laziest player Howland ever recruited. Bobo was virtually un-scouted and was taken last minute when Bobo decided not to go to LSU when they changed coaches. (A mistake that the coaching staff repeated the last two years with Matt Carlino and De'End Parker, the latter Howland never met in person when he signed with UCLA.) This year, there are no last minute "gets." Shabazz and Parker are well known qualities to the staff and Adams was the first to sign.

Second, Gordon was the leader of the 2008 group and a worse attitude than Reeves. (I agree Larry Drew II is a worry but Drew is likely to quit if he is angry not blow up the team like Gordon.) In this group, the leader is Anderson. Anderson even helped recruit Shabazz and Parker. Anderson has been the leader of every all-star team he has ever played on and screams winner. Anderson's high school coached kicked 8 players off the team and Anderson continued to thrive. This class will win, the question is how much.

TYDIDES: We've heard that attitude and chemistry will be a consideration when it comes to recruits going forward, and this class suggests that they are taking these things seriously. Then again, we've been on these kids since long before Reeves was kicked off the team and the SI article came out. I guess the real test of the commitment to this new philosophy will be next year, when Howland will once again be tasked with putting together a big class when the word is that he's already behind. Ideally, we'll have a great season and that will help us close on recruits for next year, but what if a great season isn't enough? Will desperation kick in and have us recruiting potential malcontents with character issues once again? Hopefully this is a question we won't end up having to address.

Topic 4: Is this 2012-13 team capable of playing Ben Ball style defense?

DCBRUINS: Short answer is yes. First, the positive: I think Drew and Powell could become elite defenders and certainly have the athletic ability to do so. I think Smith can be a good defender if he gets in shape. He has shown glimpses of relative quickness and has the ability to really own the paint. Anderson rebounding ability is overlooked. Yes, he is called "slowmo" but if you play him at four he becomes quick for his position (just like Honeycutt was a good college four defender) and he is a legitimate 6'8" (and how many teams have two legitimate post up bigs?) Shabazz will be a good defender. He is the only player I have seen who compares to AA on the intensity scale and I have faith in Howland to mold him into a good defender.

Of course, there is a downside. To avoid this, it seems Howland must commit to never playing two Wears at once, playing Lamb less minutes and only at the 3, and never putting Parker and Smith on the court the same time. Stover is a good defender but I am concerned about his ability to come back from an injury and get in the flow with the team.

One of the more likely lineups of a Wear Twin, a moderately in shape Smith, and Anderson could have problems against a quick three guard team. Howland may need to go "small" for Defense at times which would mean benching the Wears and playing Anderson at 4 on D. Can Howland do that? I doubt he will play zone.

I know this puts me in the minority but I am more worried about what Howland will do on defense next year than offense. UCLA has the personnel to be an elite defensive team but not every player or combination will work.

TYDIDES: I really hope it's the all star game no-defense trend expressing itself, but watching Anderson and Shabazz, neither of them stood out to me as ready to go defensively. The talent is there for Shabazz to be able to eventually guard multiple positions, and I know one of his stated reasons for coming here is to work on defense, but I guess I was hoping he'd be going from good to great defender rather than average to wherever he ends up. Anderson did stand out to me as a good rebounder, and only further confirms that his role defensively should be in the frontcourt, and at the four as you suggest, especially in conference play.

There seem to be too many combinations of players to adequately address in this space with regards to Howland's lineup options, but I think one of the early signs that we're going to be in trouble is a lot of double Wear and no zone. Given Howland's history, both of these are likely individually. Together, they suggest that Howland is back to his square peg in a round hole philosophy.

DCBRUINS: I think Howland can avoid zone with this team but he has to make many commitments to not playing certain combinations AND Josh has to be in decent shape. If he wants to play other combinations, he better play zone which I think is about as likely as Nestor buying a Nikola Dargovic jersey. That is why I am worried about the D.