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UCLA Basketball Season Preview Part 4: Setting Expectations and Schedule Analysis

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PAC-12 places second through fifth are really wide open this season. Can Steve Alford "coach up" the Bruins to a finish better than predicted in the Media Poll?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

In Season Preview Part 1, we answered the big questions. In Part 2, we looked at the Bruin roster. In Part 3, we sized up the competition. In Part 4, we'll go through the schedule month-by-month and, finally, set expectations for the season.

Actually, let's set the expectations first. The PAC-12 Media Poll had the Bruins behind 1.Arizona 2. Utah 3. Colorado and Stanford behind at #5. They were conservative. They went with what they know -- Arizona is beyond obvious for #1, Utah and Colorado brought back their entire starting lineups - never mind that the talent is not even Mount West Champion caliber, UCLA had an avalanche of bad news and Stanford, like UCLA, lost their best players and will rely on some new, though heralded, faces.

Many PAC-12 previews said that UCLA is their surprise or upside team. After Arizona, they have the most talent (I say this objectively based on recruiting class rankings). ESPN's Dino Gaudia put it nicely in his video preview:  UCLA is his surprise pick (though somehow Utah is still #2) and Kevon Looney will be the newcomer of the year (of course Stanley Johnson, who may very well be the POY, would debate that).

I said it Preview Part 2, we can reasonably debate second through fifth places. My view is that if most analysts see your team as having the most upside and your team's ultimate performance depends on the new faces meeting expectations, the situation calls for the coach to "coach up" from fourth to second. Steve Alford, you'd better do your job --you make $2.6 million per year and have job security built into your contract for at least the next three seasons (the recent extension has the buyout at $10.4 million prior to April 30, 2017).

The Bruins should finish in second in the PAC-12 and make the Sweet 16 again. They will get a tough seed, #5 - #7, and have to win a challenging game in the round of 32.

If I said I expected them to beat Arizona, then you could call me crazy. Second place in the weakest PAC-12 in three years (and the PAC-12 has been underwhelming, in general, for six years) is a reasonable expectation.  I laid out the roadmap in Previews Part 1 and 2:

  • Utah, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA may cannibalize each other equally, but the other three play Arizona twice.
  • The Bruins may take more time to settle in due to the new faces, but the matchups with Utah, Colorado go in our favor. Either the Bruin bigs will dominate the opposing bigs or the opposition simply doesn't go deeper than two players on offense.

These are expectations. I will have my analysis, positive or negative, relative to these expectations after every game. I wish I had the luxury to know how the new guys will do now -- I'll probably know in 15 minutes Friday night whether Looney, Hamilton Welsh, Bail and Allen are underwhelming -- but I don't.

I had a quick look at the schedule when the PAC-12 announced the full league schedule. Let's go through it month-by-month.

Early/Mid November

The cupcake portion has Montana State, coastal Carolina, Nichols State and Long Beach State - a team that was 10-6 in the Big West, 15-17 overall (we get to see how Tyler Lamb is doing - average 15.4 ppg last season).

We didn't learn much about the team's true caliber last year at this time, but we did get a feel for the rotations and minutes distribution that would hold for much of the season.  With three or four incoming rotation players and four new starters, a slow start is likely, and the easy part of the schedule is a welcome start.

Look to get the first answers to these questions:

  • Is Isaac Hamilton an upper-PAC-12 level scorer? Can he also be a playmaker and defender?
  • Can Thomas Welsh run up and down the court at an adequate pace?
  • Does Steve Alford use a "big" rotation?
  • Is there a good balance between running and feeding it into the post?
  • Did Noah Allen and Wannah Bail improve?

Late November

The stacked Battle for Atlantis begins on Wednesday, November 26 against first round opponent Oklahoma (USA Today #19). Here's what Jeff Eisenberg has to say about Oklahoma (part of his best-case scenario):

Oklahoma's reemergence under Lon Kruger did not receive the attention it deserved the past two years. That changes this season when the under-publicized Sooners force their way into the national headlines with their appealing style of play and array of returning standouts. In the backcourt, Hield again flourishes, hitting jumpers at a similar clip to last season while also attacking the rim more aggressively than he previously did. Cousins provides scoring and lock-down defense and Woodard distributes effectively just like last season while also emerging as more of a threat to score himself. Losing second-leading scorer Cameron Clark doesn't damage the frontcourt too badly as Thomas wins his waiver request and becomes eligible immediately. The 6-foot-8 Houston transfer forms a solid tandem with Spangler, enabling Lon Kruger to bring along his young big men slowly as backups.

Here is an analysis from ESPN.  Oklahoma returns four starters, but that team was upset by North Dakota State in the first round last season. This sounds similar to the PAC-12 experience theme with Utah and Colorado.

UCLA faltered in its first high-profile games the past two seasons, but this time around, one win is critical to the selection committee folks when the Bruins are expected to have a tough season in a weak PAC-12. I forecast a win against Oklahoma and a loss in the next round to North Carolina. The consolation game won't be easy.  It could be Georgetown or Florida.  Overall, UCLA will come out of the B4A 2-1 and 6-1 for November.

December

This month is brutal with Gonzaga at home, Kentucky in Chicago and Alabama on the road.  The Bruins will be 3-3 in December and 9-4 for the OOC schedule -- and probably unranked.

January

I wish we didn't have Colorado and Utah on the road right out of the box on January 2 with the holiday travel and weather delays and the snowy bus ride. Starting the conference schedule 0-2 is going to kick up a media and fan frenzy, but that's what I think will happen. This will be the inflection point in the season in more ways than one.  If the team can ride out the adversity, it gets better quickly.

Next up is Stanford, Cal and USC in Pauley followed by Oregon and Oregon State on the road and finally the return matches with Utah and Colorado starting Thursday, January 29.  Is the race for second place and a tournament bid decided in January?

My prediction? The Bruins go 7-2 in January --7-0 after the two losses on the road to Colorado/Utah.

February/Early March

The Bruins start February on their annual Bay Area trip.The Stanford game will be particularly interesting because both teams should have integrated their new players and settled into their rotations.It's up to the coaches now to avoid the letdown and trap games. UCLA wins two games.

The winning streak extends to 11 against the Oregon's at home and ASU on the road.

Given everything we've said in the previews, Arizona on the road is a throwaway loss.  Playing them only once is a significant advantage.

The Bruins need to keep focus at this point, and finish up at home against Washington, Washington State and USC.  These are all second and third tier PAC-12 teams.  However, there are probably two let down games in February, possibly Cal and Washington though these teams had significant losses from last season and don't have notable newcomers. Cal does bring back Jabari Bird, a heralded freshman that missed the first part of the season due to injury.

The league record is 13-5 and overall 22-9 overall. That's one game better in-conference compared to last season.  How can that be? The Arizona and the Utah losses are still there, exchange Stanford for Colorado, exchange Washington State for Washington,  and you have Oregon loss left which was due suspensions (and they are worse this year). Still not a believer? The Part 2 and 3 previews were built on certain assumptions. If the PAC-12 media poll is right, then the Bruins probably lose to Utah/Colorado at home as well and Stanford on the road. Then they are 10-8, and in fourth or fifth place. I'm guessing that Utah, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA  basically split their games with each other and UCLA is second because they play Arizona once. After that, the trick will be to avoid the silly losses to the other teams.