For the first time in four years, UCLA fans are looking forward to this upcoming basketball season without worrying how it’s going to end.
Gone are stories about players being kicked off the team or transferring to other schools. They’ve been replaced by the joy of promise and hope – the same feelings that the football team has been creating so far.
Here’s a few reasons why UCLA fans have reasons to be excited. I’ll expand on them in subsequent articles.
1. Preseason Expectations
UCLA opens the season ranked No. 13 in the AP Preseason poll. It’s their highest appearance since they were ranked No. 4 in the 2008-09 preseason poll.
It says a lot considering the Bruins didn’t make the postseason last year and their best returning scorer (Travis Wear) averaged a paltry 11.5 points. But that’s what happens when you recruit perhaps the best collection of talent since Steve Lavin was coaching a decade ago.
Part of those expectations also include winning the Pac-12 championship. Arizona is expected to be their main competition.
But it’s well deserved. Just enough room to meet the hype placed on the year and temper expectations until everything plays out.
2. The Fab Four Freshmen
Ben Howland’s recruiting has rightly been questioned over the past few years. Nothing worse than seeing talented players slip out of state and come back to haunt the team playing in the Pac-12.
Enter Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams. The Fab Four are the best collection of recruits since the class of 2008-09 led by current Philadelphia Sixers guard Jrue Holiday.
While Muhammad and Anderson’s eligibility still weigh in the balance and Muhammad will miss 2-3 weeks with a shoulder injury, fans will actually have some big names to look forward to seeing on the hardwood.
The looming question in the distance? Will Howland relent and let this team run a bit or run off his talented coup with his slow-down offense.
3. Pauley Pavilion’s Renovations
As great as UCLA’s fabled venue is, it was in dire need of an upgrade. While the Bruins made the LA Sports Arena their home for 2011-112 – another venue that either needs an upgrade or detonation – Pauley Pavilion got a $136 million facelift.
On November 9 – when the Bruins open their preseason against Indiana State – Pauley will officially be a 21st century arena. With a bigger concourse, 1,000 extra seats and better locker rooms, it’s only added to the excitement in Westwood.
Did I mention there’s a statue of Coach John Wooden? Perhaps the most fitting addition to the space is an eternal reminder of the man who made the program what it is today.
For many of us who grew up going to games at UCLA, this will be a welcome reminder that we don’t just celebrate tradition, but progress as well.
4. Larry Drew’s Homecoming
The Bruins haven’t had a standout point guard since Darren Collison graduated. While Lazeric Jones played well the last two seasons, a significant upgrade comes in the return of local boy Larry Drew.
Drew, an McDonald’s All-American out of Woodland Hills Taft High School, was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. Although he left North Carolina under dubious circumstances, he did average close to six assists per game and is a pure point guard who can get others involved.
His star faded after being replaced by Kendall Marshall but with one year of eligibility left, his experience could be a huge boost to a young team. He and Kyle Anderson will share ballhandling duties but with Drew as the starter, all eyes will be on him to see if he reminds folks of the former All-State player he used to be.
5. Can Ben Howland Restore His Reputation
Howland came to UCLA in 2003 to save it after one of the worst seasons in years. Three Final Fours did just that but now he’s come under fire for how his team has underperformed, his poor evaluation of recruits and, after a Sports Illustrated piece, how he’s managed the team.
All eyes now will be on him to capitalize on this goodwill and take the Bruins past the second round. This offseason perhaps saved his job for at least one more year. It’s up to him and the players to reward fans for their optimism and make this season one worth remembering.