It was back in the 1960s and 1970s that the UCLA Bruins (14-18, 8-10 Pac-10) dominated the college basketball tournament, winning championship after championship. But that was long before the NCAA went to the almost 70-team and 70-game format. The field has expanded greatly, making even a repeat championship bid very rare.
The last time UCLA won the NCAA Championship was in 1995. The last time they came close, that is played in the final game, was in 2006. Last year, the Bruins finished tied for fifth in the Pac-10 and did not go to a tournament. This year, they could make it back to the NCAA’s Big Dance. A lot depends on the next generation of players about to take the court and a few returning guys.
Small forward Tyler Honeycutt (6-8, 183 lbs., SO, #23, 7.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, 27.7 mpg, .496 FG, .345 3PT, .600 FT) showed some real flashes last season. It was his freshman season and there were a lot of adjustments to make. As he adapted to the college game, the small forward was able to produce more effectively. Honeycutt can post up and connect or pop out and drain one from downtown. He’s also a sound defensive performer, earning a national ranking of 152nd on steal percentage (3.3%) and a rating of 180th on defensive rebound percentage (20.0%). He’s a future star and this season may be the one in which the sophomore breaks through.
Another sophomore, Reeves Nelson (6-8, 235 lbs., SO, #22, 11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 0.4 apg, 23.4 mpg, .647 FG, .000 3PT, .521 FT), looks like the most logical choice for starting power forward. Nelson put up good numbers around the basket last season and was also a sound defensive player. It would be helpful if he could get a better grasp on his foul shooting since he was ranked 113th on fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.0) but hit only 52.1% from the line. When it came to defensive rebounding, he earned a national ranking of 176th (20.0%) and on the offensive end, he was 265th (10.5%). Nelson has a lot of energy and drive and scored in double digits 17 times in his frosh season. He’s bulked up and should be able to bang better, grabbing more rebbies. He’s a solid force on the court.
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A third sophomore, Brendan Lane (6-9, 208 lbs., SO, #21, 2.4 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 0.4 apg, 10.0 mpg, .574 FG, . 2313PT, .571 FT), has frontcourt potential. He’s tall but doesn’t bring much bulk to the game. Although less than spectacular in his freshman season, he did have some solid games and could be the third starter. If not, there are some freshmen who may step up and get the job done.
The backcourt features two returning guards on whom the team’s success rests in 2010-2011. The point will be overseen by Jerime Anderson (6-2, 181 lbs., JR, #5, 5.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg, apg, 3.4 mpg, .504 FG, .379 3PT, .583 FT). Last season, like so many of these Bruins players, he was inconsistent. Anderson, who had an assist rate of 27.4 (153rd), showed that he could find the open man. He also revealed some fine shooting chops, with solid accuracy from downtown and on his twos. Three places that he needs to show improvement are on defense, when ball handling and at the free throw line.
Malcolm Lee (6-4, 195 lbs., JR, #3, 12.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.1 apg, 34.8 mpg, .432 FG, .252 3PT, .706 FT) played a lot of minutes last season. He returns as the team’s top scorer and best free throw shooter. He was pretty miserable from downtown though, hitting 25% of his threes. He can take it to the basket, but in order to play the shooting spot, he simply has to shoot more accurately, especially from the three-point arc.
At the center spot, the Bruins welcome top 30 recruit Josh Smith. Smith is 6-10 and certainly carries some bulk, weighing in at 305 pounds. He needs to lose some of that weight and get in better shape before he can be expected to contribute.
In the backcourt, transfer Lazeric Jones brings some very good defensive tools plus the ability to distribute the ball effectively. But he isn’t much of a scoring threat. Freshman guard Tyler Lamb arrives ready to contribute points immediately.
The Bruins’ offense earned an efficiency rating of 105.8 (104th) as they hit just 63.3% of their frees. That placed them 327th in the nation when it came to charity stripe tosses. Opponents hit 69.7% of their frees. When hitting twos, UCLA was proficient as they sank 54.7%, ranking them fourth in the country. But from downtown they were weak, connecting on just 32.5% (239th). They also turned the ball over a lot and were less than effective when rebounding on offense.
Overall, the team’s defensive efficiency was at 99.2, which was 138th in the country. Teams were able to garner chunks of points from the three-point arc as opponents shot 36.3%. Opposing teams also performed well from the two-point area, putting in 49.1%. The Bruins were good at blocking shots, knocking away 11.3% (64th).
If you’re looking for two numbers that say it all, here they are—scoring offense averaged 66.8 PPG and scoring defense averaged 68.6 PPG. That meant that the team had a PF/PA average of minus-1.8 PPG. It’s hard to win many games when you’re constantly being outscored.
For head coach Ben Howland (334-171 in 16 years, 166-72 in seven years with UCLA) last season was pretty much a nightmare. This season he has a chance to right the ship and get the Bruins back on course. He certainly seems determined to do just that. Actually, he has no choice. A second straight losing season won’t be acceptable to the Bruin fans, alumni or administration. Not that far removed from getting UCLA to their third consecutive Final Four, Howland should be able to guide this team in a manner that will make them competitive. If there is no progress, there’s probably no coach Howland at UCLA next season.
Last year, the wheels fell off the Bruins’ operation. There was infighting, injuries, dissension and defections. Their 2008 recruiting class that had been ranked first in the nation was all but disbanded, as only two remained. Now it’s time for UCLA to get back on course and they do seem to have the foundation to do just that. They certainly have some good freshmen and two returning player, Lee and Anderson, who will be asked to step up.
This Bruins’ team will move up a few notches from last season. They have a decent shot at second in the Pac-10 and, if not, then third. They have the personnel to put together a winning season overall and compete within the conference. One thing they must do is shoot better from the free throw line. Their inability to exploit the charity stripe is inexcusable. This UCLA team will get the Bruins back in the top 25 nationally. They start the season ranked 23rd. Will they get back to the NCAA Tournament? The answer to that is “yes.” They won’t stay long at the Big Dance but they will have a ticket.
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