The 2011-2012 UCLA men's basketball season, also known as the Bruin Extended Road Show, begins (at least for the fans) on Sunday, November 6th at 2 PM at Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario with the Bruins hosting the Division II Coyotes of Cal State San Bernardino. As almost all UCLA supporters know, the Bruins will be playing their home games away from Pauley Pavilion this season, and the exhibition game is no different, as the venerable "old lady" gets a well deserved and long overdue facelift.
Unlike the beginning of last season when there was a good deal of trepidation among the Bruin faithful, this season begins with much more optimism regarding the ultimate fortunes of Coach Ben Howland's squad. While the Bruins do have some questions that need to be answered, especially in the backcourt, UCLA is arguably deeper and more talented in the frontcourt than they've been in a few years.
The Bruin backcourt is a concern mainly because of its lack of depth and because it doesn't have an established defensive presence. Howland will certainly be looking to the CSSB exhibition game to begin alleviating those concerns. Howland has four guards available to share the minutes of the two backcourt positions. Two of the guards, seniors Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones, are seniors while the other two are sophomore Tyler Lamb and freshman Norman Powell. Anderson and Jones are established in the sense that Howland knows what he'll get out of them. Lamb and Powell are the unknowns and they are also collectively the key to the defensive part of the season. With the departure of Malcolm Lee to the professional ranks the Bruins were left without their lock-down defensive presence. Howland will be looking to Lamb and Powell to fill Lee's defensive shoes. Anderson will be out for the CSSB game due to his suspension.
Conversely, UCLA's frontcourt is quite deep, with arguably seven players to fill two to three spots. Howland has a bevy of underclassmen to choose from to man the low block in juniors Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane and sophomores Anthony Stover, twins Travis and David Wear and, of course, Josh Smith. Stover will be out of the CSSB game with a shoulder injury and the Wears will be playing their first games under the lights in a UCLA uniform since their transfer from North Carolina. Most of the preseason magazines and prognosticators have both Nelson and Smith being among the best big men in both the Pac 12 and the nation, with some predictions going so far as to anoint Nelson the preseason Pac 12 Player of the Year. However, even with all the depth in the frontcourt, the Bruins have some questions.
The one player that hasn't been mentioned is junior JC transfer De'End Parker. Parker has been in and out of practice the past few weeks with several injuries but there are big expectations of him, especially on defense. He is critical to the depth of the Bruins; if he isn't the defensive answer at the small forward spot then Howland will be forced to either play David Wear at that spot or one of the four guards. The Bruins will sacrifice quickness at the position if Wear has to get many minutes there. If they have to utilize one of the guards as the primary player at the wing it will certainly wear down the unit collectively as the season goes on. Wear will certainly play a lot at the three on Sunday and it will be worth watching if he can defensively do the job against smaller but quicker players.
CSSB will be a good test to open the season for the Bruins as they are a pretty good Division II squad. The Coyotes have been picked to finish in 2nd place in the preseason CCAA and have the depth and the length to play with a lot of D I teams.
The Coyotes return junior Kwame Alexander (6'7" 240 lbs.), who is the leading returning scorer and rebounder for Oliver. He will present a valid inside challenge to the Bruin bigs. Senior Theron Laudermill (6'7" 235 lbs.) is a virtual clone of Alexander, averaging just below the junior in both scoring and rebounding last year. Both he and Alexander can move relatively well down low. Alexander, in particular, is a good athlete. Former Arizona Wildcat D.J. Shumpert (6'7" 205 lbs.) provides depth. The unknown is JC transfer Pablo Genevo (6'10" 250 lbs.) from Spain.
Senior Nate Roth (5'10" 165 lbs.) will be a player who bears watching as he is the kind of quick, small guard that has traditionally given the Bruins trouble since Howland arrived in Westwood. He is the leading returning assist leader for the Coyotes and the best returning 3-point shooter. He is a decent foul shooter but gets there enough times to know that he is a threat to get into the lane.
Senior Sidney Hall (6'2" 170 lbs.) will more than likely start at the shooting guard spot. He is almost strictly an outside shooter, having gotten to the foul line only 4 times last season while attempting 56 three-pointers. However, the player that fans should keep an eye on is another JC transfer, junior Scooter Holmes (6'4" 200 lbs.), who is a slasher that could hurt the Bruins with both his ability to score of the dribble and shoot from outside.
There is no question that the Bruins should win. The question is, by how much? Much will depend on how the Bruins begin answering the concerns and unknowns surrounding the team.
Here are the key questions going into the CSSB game:
• Will Tyler Lamb show that he could at least develop into this season's effective defensive stopper?
• Will Norman Powell's athleticism translate into his mastering much of Howland's learning curve so that he provides meaningful depth in the backcourt?
• Will Parker and/or David Wear be the answer at small forward?
• Will Nelson's attitude rear its ugly head or will he play as a mature junior and leader?
• Will the Bruins dominate night in and night out on the low block? Remember that Howland's teams at UCLA haven't been known for being outstanding at getting the ball inside on a consistent basis.
• Will the Bruins be able to break through and down the inevitable zone defenses they will face because of their frontcourt depth (and lack thereof in the backcourt)?
• Will Brendan Lane get meaningful minutes? The talent is there. The only thing holding Lane back has been a lack of confidence.
It should be an exciting season as the Bruins have been the consensus pick to reign over the first season of the newly formed Pac-12.