It'd be an understatement to suggest that something was awry in Westwood in 2010. For a Ben Howland program that had earned three consecutive trips to the Final Four from 2006-2008, last season's 8-10 finish in Pac-10 play certainly caught most Bruin backers by surprise. Granted, a bit of a letdown was expected, particularly after the departures of players such as Darren Collison and Jrue Holliday, but a sub-500 finish came on all too short notice and served to be a serious P.R. blow to Howland, who had become affectionately known as the caretaker of Westwood following his string of success this past decade.
Now, the question remains whether last year's finish was nothing more than an aberration, simply the result of a poorly constructed recruiting class and heavy departures to the professional ranks. But it's tough to simply gloss over the results from a year ago, for many problems did present themselves: injuries, a serious dropoff in talent and puzzling coaching decisions. Howland, however, has produced winners in the past, so the notion that UCLA is a sinking ship may be premature despite the problems, despite the fact that some of the nagging issues may take more than a year to settle.
Therefore, the 2010-2011 season should, in many ways, still be an improvement for a young, inexperienced Bruin team.
Last year's record: 14-18, 8-10 Pac 10
2010-11′s toughest games: at Kansas, BYU, Washington, Arizona
Main attraction: In a season in which the Pac-10 as a whole is still suffering from its post-2009 hangover, can the Bruins return to the top of the conference while coming off an underwhelming finish from a year ago? If so, count on a big year from potential lottery pick Tyler Honeycutt, as well as improved play from the point guard position.
Three things of note:
1. Change in Tempo. Oddly enough, UCLA plans on running a fast-paced offense in 2011, hoping to take advantage of various fast-break situations. Will it work? It remains to be seen, but at the very least, Howland is emphasizing an offensive strategy that "pushes it" at every turn. Howland's never been one to run anything other than a snail-paced offense, but there's enough talent on the roster, where this could potentially pay huge dividends. Per Ben Bolch of the LA Times:
"We're trying to score easy buckets when we can," Howland said, "and I think this team will be good at it."
A faster tempo, Howland reasons, will capitalize on the strengths of his returning nucleus - the speed of guard Malcolm Lee and forward Tyler Honeycutt as well as the improved conditioning of forward Reeves Nelson.
They have the right players to run. Lee, Honeycutt and Jerime Andersen, are all athletic guys. It's unknown, however, how well it'll work under Howland's tutelage.
2. Honeycutt. He may not have the national following of fellow conference All-Americans Klay Thompson, or Derrick Williams, but Honeycutt may have the best pro potential of any player on the west coast. With his versatility and wingspan, the 6'8" sophomore has the capability of developing into the Bruins' most complete offensive weapon. For starters, his 7.2 ppg average remains third best among returners, but at times in 2010, Honeycutt notched near-triple double like numbers. In a February win over Oregon State, he led all scores with 18 points, while two days later; he totaled 13 rebounds in a matchup against Oregon. Even more impressive may have been his performance while playing power forward against Stanford, and Oregon, finishing with 8 and 9 assists respectively. All the more encouraging for a player in Honeycutt, who looks to have a bigger role offensively in 2010, was a field goal percentage of 49.6%. In essence, he's a smart, fundamentally sound, and in many ways the perfect player for Ben Howland, who is expecting him to "have a really, really solid year."
3. Point Guard Play. If a statistician was to pinpoint the reason for the decline of UCLA basketball a season ago, a good place to start would be to examine the team's dismal assistant-to-turnover ratio, largely due to the result of near-ineptitude at the point guard position. Malcolm Lee, who referred to himself on twitter as a caged pitbull in Howland's offense, struggled at the point guard position, while Anderson was slowed down due to a groin injury. Combined, the team as a whole averaged 14 turnovers per game, with just 15 assists. That'll need to change, if there is to be any improvement in 2011.
Last word: UCLA is going to be better this year. No, not by leaps and bounds, but in general, their younger, inexperienced players are now a year older and Howland is too good of a coach to oversee consecutive sub-500 seasons. There is unquestionably talent on this roster, and there are legitimate reasons to be optimistic that team chemistry will be better. An NCAA Tournament appearance is most certainly on this group's radar.