Considering the Bruins didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year, it’s more validation that expectations are high in Westwood and anything less than a Sweet 16 berth will be a disappointment.
It’s the first time they’ve had the No. 1 preseason conference ranking since 2011 and that year, they finished tied for 5th. As Ben Howland said during media day, being ranked first in preseason doesn’t mean much when finishing first at the end is what matters.
Howland was also optimistic about Shabazz Muhammad being cleared to play by the NCAA although he couldn’t give a timetable when a decision could be announced.
With a week to go until their season opener, one can only hope the NCAA will decide sooner than later. I’ve already addressed their long and unstated timetable this week but as hopeful as Howland is, one can assume that despite the complex nature of what Muhammad may or may not have received will be resolved soon.
Howland also added that newly eligible freshman Kyle Anderson will share the floor often with Larry Drew II, keeping his tradition of preferring two ball-handlers on the floor at once.
The only difference is that Drew at 6-2 and Anderson at 6-9 won’t be your typical backcourt. You might have to go back to the days when Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon ran the early 1980s Los Angeles Lakers to find a similar odd pairing.
It can work whether or not Muhammad is eligible or not to start at shooting guard. Let Anderson roam the perimeter as a small forward who can create while allowing Drew, whose shooting was a concern Howland addressed, to do the same without seeking his own shot.
Perhaps the only downer of the media session was when Howland discussed junior center Josh Smith. Howland said that Smith still had a long way to go in his conditioning, which isn’t encouraging to hear as fans hoped Smith would be in better shape. He’s still listed at 305 lbs in the media guide so it appears he’s going to be a source of frustration unless something changes.
Finally, both Howland and David Wear also said that UCLA wants to be more uptempo this year with their offense. To this I say three words: It’s about time!
The biggest problem in previous seasons is UCLA’s slowdown offense. You can blame it on the lack of a traditional point guard but with the athletes on the roster, there’s no excuse to make them settle for a boring offense.
It’s also been bad for recruiting. What kid wants to come to UCLA knowing they won’t be able to run like Kentucky or other programs?
I’ve always believed Howland can preach smothering defense without hampering his offense and it’s great that he’s finally relenting with this group of players. Not only will it translate to more wins, but it will probably attract the type of recruits who can maintain the program’s level of excellence.
As Howland said, he has a great blend of youth and experience to rely on. The big if remains Muhammad’s eligibility but for now, it’s game on in Westwood as the Bruins try to live up to the promise/hope placed on them.