Four big questions hang over the program. Well, five. The first four have to do with personnel: First, will Jason Kapono return for his SR year or go pro? Second, will Evan Burns sign with UCLA or either fail to qualify academically or go pro? Third, will anyone transfer? Fourth, will the Bruins sign another player with their last remaining scholarship or save it for the JR class?
The fifth question is whether Jim Saia will get the Fresno State position (or another job) and, if so, will Bob Bender (or Bill Grier) join UCLA's staff as an assistant and, if so, what will that mean? Okay, that's three questions in one, but so what?
I believe Jason Kapono will return for his SR year. I think Jason enjoys college and playing in front of his family (and being able to spend so much time with them). I think he's in love with his girlfriend and his new apartment. I think he understands that he will finally be the centerpiece of the team next season and a strong SR year might help his draft status. Of course, it's possible that Jason will decide he's taken his game as far as it can go in college and that he'd like to start making a lot of money now instead of a year from now. Unless his teammates show some creative scoring ability, opposing teams will simply tag Jason all year long and maybe he'll have trouble scoring 12 ppg. Nobody really knows what he'll do except Jason, and maybe Jason himself really doesn't know yet. But I will write this under the assumption that Jason is returning.
I believe Evan Burns will be a Bruin next year. I've never really thought it's actually been a legitimate issue, but I suppose anything is possible.
I don't believe anyone will transfer, though I think there's a reasonable possibility concerning one player who has struggled more than anyone else adjusting academically. I'll take the chance that he'll stay in school.
Will the Bruins sign another player this spring? As of now, Evan Burns, Mike Fey, Matt McKinney and Jon Crispin go on scholarship next season, so the Bruins have one more scholarship to offer under the 5/8 rule.
The Bruins have been actively recruiting 6-9 PF Erazem Lorbek of Slovenia for nearly a year. He's reportedly a fine 4 prospect with some wing skills who has already caught the eye of NBA scouts, but I've never seen him play and I have no comment on his talent. Lorbek has allegedly given UCLA a verbal commitment, but his eligibility status won't be clear before July 1. In addition, as far as I know, Jim Saia has been the only UCLA coach to have personal contact with Lorbek and it isn't clear if Lorbek's commitment to UCLA would waiver if Saia took a head job elsewhere.
The Bruins are recruiting 6-9 C Rod Benson of Torrey Pines High, a good C prospect who has also been the subject of an ardent pursuit by Stanford and Oregon, among other schools. However, UCLA has not yet offered Rod a scholarship and they are hoping to scout him more before making a final decision.
Sources tell us UCLA is exploring the Armando Surratt situation. Armando, a high quality 5-9 PG, signed with Fresno State in the fall, but has been granted his release and is talking to numerous other schools, including USC and Miami (Florida). Armando's academics were an issue for UCLA in the fall, but if the dang Trojans can recruit him now, maybe the Bruins can too. It would be interesting to see how Jim Saia will react to this situation if he becomes the head coach at Fresno State. More than likely, though, it's doubtful that UCLA would be able to move on Surratt given his academics.
My guess is that unless UCLA takes a transfer, they won't sign anyone else. And even if the Bruins did take a transfer, he'll have to sit out a year anyway. Of course, if the transfer went to high school in California, he could theoretically walk on for a year, paying in-state tuition so UCLA could add a 6th player, but I think that's ridiculous.
So, I see UCLA's scholarship roster next season as follows (my heights are based on my best guess from actually standing next to the players in practice every week):
Jason Kapono, 6-7+ SR SG/SF (16.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, 45.9% FGs, 45.3% FTs, 85.6% FTs)
TJ Cummings, 6-9+ JR PF (7.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 51% FGs, 25% 3s, 74.5% FTs)
Dijon Thompson, 6-8 SO SG/SF (4.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 42.9% FGs, 27.1% 3s, 87% FTs)
Cedric Bozeman, 6-7 SO PG (4.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, 41.3% FGs, 28% 3s, 28.6% FTs)
Ryan Walcott, 6-0 SO PG (2.5 ppg, 1.2 apg, 41.8% FGs, 34.6% 3s, 70% FTs)
Andre Patterson, 6-6 SO PF (2.3 ppg, 2.1 ppg, 0.6 bpg, 50% FGs, 64.7% FTs)
Josiah Johnson, 6-7 SO PF (0.8 ppg, 0.2 rpg)
Ray Young, 6-3 SR SG (7.0 ppg, 35.2% FGs, 21.2% 3s, 82.2% FTs in 2000-01)
Jon Crispin, 6-0 JR SG (7.2 ppg, 39.5% FGs, 35.6% 3s, 73.7% FTs at Penn State in 2000-01)
Evan Burns, 6-8 FR SG/SF/PF
Mike Fey, 7-0 FR C
Matt McKinney, 6-8 FR PF
In addition, Marcedes Lewis, 6-7 FR PF, will join the team after football season, and one can expect John Hoffart, 6-10 JR C, to walk on again.
Several factors seem to stand out on paper (of course, we all know what the paper was worth this year):
First, this team lacks proven post play and is thin at the post. Second, this team lacks a proven 3-point shooter besides Jason Kapono. Third, this team lacks a proven scorer besides Jason Kapono. Fourth, this team will probably be an outstanding FT shooting team. Fifth, this team appears to be noticeably more athletic, quicker and more versatile than this year's team. Sixth, this team has a lot of shooting guards/wings.
Post Play: This certainly appears to be a problem. Most likely, TJ will get the nod as the starting C. TJ rarely played like a C this season. Except when Lavin played him as the C on his "second unit." Then TJ played and looked very much like a C, with a 3-point shot to boot. We will all have to hope that means something. Two other reasons for hope: If TJ doesn't play C next season, he might not play at all. Matt Barnes faced the same situation as a JR when he was told to sit or play the 4 spot and he came through with flying colors. TJ also went from 6-8 and 206 as a FR to 6-9 and ½ and 226 as a SO (the program lists him at 6-10 and ½, but I don't buy it). It certainly isn't inconceivable that he could return at 240 next season. TJ had 11 rebounds in 35 minutes in UCLA's three NCAA Tournament games this season playing as the "C" on the second unit. If he could do that for a season, this becomes the biggest non-issue of all time. But is anyone willing to actually bet money he can do that for a season?
Mike Fey brings size and skills, but no college experience. Andre Patterson has a lot of post skills and great athleticism, but clearly must either gain weight or inches or both to be a major impact player. Both players have a lot of talent. It's easy to be pessimistic and it's easy to be optimistic about Mike and Andre. If they can play 50 mpg between them, UCLA could have a pretty good post game, but there's really no way for any rational person to make a definitive statement about them either way.
Marc Lewis will help by February 1, but will the Bruins already be out of the running by then? Matt McKinney is a wild card: There's just no telling how good this kid will be. He reminds me of former Bruin Dave Meyers in body type, athleticism and skills. But the Spiderman didn't have to play 15 mpg as a FR, except on the Brubabes.
Last thought on post play: Evan Burns is every bit as tall and as strong as Shane Battier was when Shane started at the 4 for Duke. But Evan has about a foot on Shane when it comes to vertical. Evan is good enough that NBA scouts have watched him play this year. They've done that for maybe 5 h.s. players total all season. Don't be surprised if Evan starts at the 4 for the Bruins next season. And does really well…
3-Point Shooting: Jason can do it. There's reason to believe that Jon can do it. Dijon hit 35% of his 3s in the Bruins' last 10 games. Ryan was over 40% from 3 until the last two NCAA Tournament games. Evan has a nice shot from 3, but he will be a FR. Even Ced's 28% from 3 was solid for a FR, but his shot sure looks ugly. My guess is that with Jason, Dijon, Evan, Jon and Ryan, the Bruins will be solid from 3, but not nearly as tough as they were this season. If the Bruins favor a 3-2 motion offense, Jason might find a lot of picks to free him up for open 3s. Dijon, Jon and the rest could benefit from this as well. Look for TJ to improve to over 30% next year…
Reliable Scoring: Most teams have focused on Jason for the last three years, but he's found ways to score anyway. Dijon, Evan, Ced, Ryan, Andre, Ray and Jon give the team players who can create their own shot, hit the J or take it to the basket. In short, they give UCLA a dimension that the team almost wholly lacked this season. While I hardly expect either TJ or Mike to play as well as Dan, they are both more versatile players than Dan and have better hands. I believe UCLA will find enough reliable scorers to support Jason and will be a much more consistently dangerous team next season.
Of course, one of the most important components of offense is defense. With the players on hand for next season, UCLA ought to be able to play pressure man d, extend the defense and convert in transition off of rebounds and turnovers. The Bruins really struggled to score in many games last season because almost all of their offense came in the halfcourt, due mainly to a lack of pressure defense. An upgrade in the team's defense could have a much bigger impact on the team's fortunes than any personnel analysis can possibly reveal. 10 fast break baskets a game and people will say, "Dan, Matt and Billy who?" In short, improved defense can more than negate any loss of shooting, experience or power in the middle. But who knows?
FT Shooting: Apart from Ced, the team sure has a lot of good FT shooters at every position. And my guess is that Ced will shoot over 70% next season. FT shooting can win a lot of games. Dijon and Ryan were particularly clutch at the end of games, more so than Billy and Jason. Ray was also very clutch as a JR, more so than Jason.
Quickness, Versatility: I've covered some of this already. The team should be much improved defensively. Players like Dijon and Evan can do a lot of damage in a motion offense, something Billy and Matt weren't capable of despite their skills. Jon and Ray are quicker and more athletic than Rico and should be more effective subs off the bench. Ced and Ryan both displayed flashes of skill and now have a year under their belts. Actually, I'm not giving Ced enough credit. While many people focused on what he didn't do, Ced had a stretch where he handed out 15 assists and made just one turnover. I firmly believe that Ced's game was severely hampered by his knee injury and that he will return next season as one of the top PGs in the country, even if he doesn't hit a lot of 3s (I hope he works out with Jason this summer). If UCLA's defense enables the team to force turnovers, watch out for what Ced will do on the fast break with guys like Dijon, Evan, Ray, Jon, Andre, and, yes, even Jason, to toss the ball to. Ryan is a classic motion PG. TJ can beat most Cs down the floor. He can hit 3s and has a nice jump hook inside. If he comes back next year at 240 and with a more aggressive attitude (if he doesn't, he'll sit behind Andre and Mike), he will give the team a lot of options. Mike is a traditional big man whose fundamentals are already way ahead of Dan's. With these players, the coaches can focus on the offense and defense and game preparation. The guys on this team already know how to play the game.
I guess Lavin won't be using many timeouts next year, either…
Wings: Lavin struggled to make up his mind on who to play and how many minutes to play them last year and the team suffered as a result. With Jason, Dijon, Evan, Ray and Jon all in the mix at the 2 and 3 spots, it's possible Lavin could be affected with "paralysis by analysis" again (his favorite phrase). I expect that Evan will play a lot of 4, and Jason and Dijon are just better than Jon and Ray, so that will likely make up Lavin's mind for him.
Where does that leave us? With questions, for better or worse. Until TJ, Mike, Andre and probably Evan step onto the floor and go up against some top post players, we will all have big doubts about this team's post play. Until Dijon and Jon and somebody else hit some 3s on a consistent basis, UCLA will likely see some zones. I don't think scoring or FT shooting will be a problem, and I believe the Bruins' defense and running game will be much improved.
It's possible this team won't be nearly as good as last year's team. It's possible that it will be better. I wish I was in a position to make a more certain call, but I'm not. No one else is, either. The team will almost certainly be more exciting next season, with all of that running and pressing instead of standing around at both ends of the floor.
If Jim Saia gets the Fresno State job or another job, I believe that Bob Bender will become UCLA's new assistant. I've gotten to know Jim pretty well and in my amateur eyes I think he's an excellent coach. But I think Bob will be a superior assistant for UCLA at this time. He has considerable coaching experience both as a head coach and as an assistant under Coach K, and he is highly-regarded by his peers as an evaluator of talent. Because of his experience, and because he doesn't have the close personal relationship with Lavin that Jim had, I believe that Lavin will probably be more open to new ideas from Bob than he was with Jim. Every head coach benefits from having terrific assistants, and it's hard to imagine UCLA finding a better assistant than Bob. Of course, the down side is that Bob will likely stay for 5 years or so at most and then take some major job somewhere else, but that's how this business works. If Mark Few stays at Gonzaga and for some reason Bob does not come to UCLA, I believe Lavin will try to hire Bill Grier from Gonzaga and I have a very positive view of Bill as well. So, losing Jim will hurt, but adding Bob or Bill will be a major benefit to the program and to Lavin.
I believe that both Patrick Sandle and Gerald Madkins are very strong. Coach Madkins should have a very positive effect on UCLA's recruiting. I think Lavin will have a very strong staff at UCLA next season, the best he's ever had. This is true if Jim returns. But I think Jim is ready to leave. FSU is his dream job and hopefully he will get it, though of course I wish Ray Lopes well (does anyone know that he's ShanTay Legans' uncle?).
The recruiting future: This is where everything gets hazy. UCLA has a good chance to sign Marcus Williams of Crenshaw/Oak Hill and one of three other guards: Ayinde Ubaka of Oakland High, Omar Wilkes of Loyola or Khalif Ford of Diamond Bar. Up front, UCLA's best bet for now appears to be Sean Phaler of Villa Park, though the staff is stepping up its efforts to sign one of Leon Powe of Oakland Tech, Nick Stiggers of Montclair Prep, Ekene Ibekwe of Carson and Kris Humphries of Minnesota. I don't think UCLA will be able to offer more than three total scholarships in the JR class.
A lot depends on performance, of course. Kris Humphries apparently had written off the Bruins and then called Steve Lavin after the Cincinnati game and swore like the king of all liars that UCLA was his dream school. I wonder if he still dreams about them after the Missouri game? Obviously, performance on the floor will affect recruiting more than any other factor. It will be interesting to see how Bender or Grier, both fanatic adherents to a modern motion offense, affect Lavin's recruiting strategy…
When it comes to Lavin leaving the program, it's hard to see since he has the backing of upper management at UCLA. Jokesters in the Chancellors' Office refer to him as "Albert Carnesale JR" or "the son Carnesale never had" because of his close relationship with the Chancellor. Of course, a few NCAA violations or academic disasters could chill even the best relationship at a major university, but disgruntled fans should understand that Lavin is on very solid footing with Carnesale and, in effect, the school. The only thing barring a long-term deal for him is that the school would have to give Toledo the same contract and Toledo hasn't exactly been burning up the bowl circuit lately. But if Toledo makes a bowl next season, don't be surprised to hear about Lavin potentially getting a long-term deal; discussions of such a deal have already taken place, even if Dalis denies it (he's not part of the discussions, anyway).
Of course, a new AD is coming in, and if you're a new AD trying to put your stamp of immortality on the UCLA athletic program the most obvious way is to fire the basketball coach. So, while Lavin has become a major supporter of finding an AD outside the department, he might find out that getting what you wish for isn't always a good idea. While I'm not privy to all of the Byzantine internecine politics of the UCLA athletic department, it's pretty obvious that Lavin has pissed off some people in the athletic department, perhaps because he opposed their candidacy for the AD's job or maybe because he was able to use Dalis's "Pitino" gaffe to go over the AD's head and get a better contract. Or maybe they just don't like him. As a result, negative information, some accurate and some inaccurate, has been flowing out of the athletic department for some time about Lavin. I presume the new athletic director will put a stop to that, but as I said I don't think Lavin is in any position to relax. The situation has become ugly and needs to be resolved, and hopefully the new athletic director or whoever will do that by cleaning house. But Lavin will almost certainly be caught up in the broom eventually if he makes some serious mistakes or doesn't continue to improve as a coach and as a recruiter.
For now, at least for the short term, it looks like Steve Lavin is the Head Coach at UCLA. You can scream about it until you're blue and gold in the face, but that's just the way it is…