UCLA might face one of its toughest non-conference schedule in years, potentially playing four teams that are in a pre-season top-25 poll, including very likely the #1 team in the nation, Indiana (if both make it to the final of the Legends Classic at the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, New York).
Like I said in the team preview, it could be a tough go for UCLA if Shabazz Muhammad is not eligible for all of those, or most of those, games. On the other hand, it gives UCLA a great opportunity, unlike in other years when it played a pretty soft non-conference schedule, to really boost its RPI.
It could really use an RPI boost because the Pac-12 doesn't look to be very strong again this season. It will almost certainly be better than it was a season ago - when it was just about the worst it had been in our lifetime - but not by much. It will be a little better at the top, with some programs -- namely UCLA and Arizona -- that have a chance to be among the best teams in the country, and it should have a chance to get more than just the two meager teams (Colorado and California) that it got in the tournament last March.
Now, before we get into the predictions, we have to again throw out the disclaimer that this is really a fool's game -- trying to predict in November how a game will play out in February. In 2010-2011, we went 27-0 in our prediction for that season's first 27 games, and that tended to raise expectations (and it's all about expectations) for our predictions, which we didn't live up to last season. So, unless we go 27-0 again, or better, please forget these predictions completely by the end of the season.
Here we go...
UCLA starts the season Friday against Indiana State, to christen the newly rebuilt Pauley Pavilion. The Sycamores are coming off a barely- winning season (18-15) in the Missouri Valley Conference, and lost most of their starters and scorers. You would think if there was one non- conference cupcake that this Bruin team wil be up to beat, with it being on the night they unveil the new Pauley, it will be Indiana State. 1-0.
UC Irvine should be better than it was last year, when it had a losing season, and the Anteaters return a team-full of seniors and should be improved. UCLA, though, even without Muhammad, is vastly more talented than Irvine and shouldn't have a problem. 2-0.
In fact, there isn't a cupcake on the schedule that UCLA should lose to even if they don't have Muhammad. James Madison is next, and they're another team coming off a losing season with many veterans. 3-0.
UCLA faces Georgetown in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn. The Hoyas are the first high-major opponent for 2012, and they have some talent, but need to find the right talent to replace three starters from a season ago. They'll probably finish in the top half of the Big East and make the NCAA Tournament, so this is a big game for the Bruins. We'll call if for UCLA, even if Muhammad isn't playing. 4-0.
If UCLA gets past the Hoyas and #1 Indiana advances past Georgia, and both are likely, the Bruins and Hoosiers will make for what should be a very good Legends final, especially if Muhammad is eligible by this time. With or without Muhammad, it's probably a loss, with Indiana being loaded. 4-1.
Joe Callero has been improving every season at Cal Poly, going from 12 to 15 to 18 wins, but loses his three top scorers. 5-1.
UCLA continues its Big West Conference play, facing its third from that conference in two weeks when it plays Cal State Northridge. It's highly unlikely that Northridge pulls a Pauley Surprise this time, coming back from a season when they were banned from post-season play for a poor APR. 6-1.
San Diego State is a pre-season top 25 team, and easily among the handful of best teams on the West Coast. The Aztecs return four starters, and could have the best backcourt in the west, which could present a tough match-up for the Bruins. The game is in the Wooden Classic, which is practically as much a home game for SDSU as UCLA, and you can expect just as many Aztec fans as Bruin fans. Without Muhammad, a loss. 6-2. With Muhammad, a win, 7-1.
The exhibition against Cal State San Marcos is next and that doesn't count in the won/loss record.
The Bruins then travel to Houston to take on Texas in the M.D. Anderson Proton Therapy Showcase, which has to be the best name of an event in the country. It's a double-header with the women's teams, to promote the cancer hospital, and it will be in Reliant Stadium, which seats 71,000 and has a retractable roof. The Longhorns are a top-25 caliber team, with talent, albeit young. W/O Muhammad, loss, 6-3. W/ Muhammad, win, 8-1.
UCLA returns to Pauley for the next six straight games, getting Prairie View A&M, with the Panthers returning everyone and are favored to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference. If there's a cupcake that UCLA could lose to, it'd be these guys. Win, 7-3, 9-1.
Another game in which UCLA could stumble would be against Long Beach State (Is UCLA getting some Big West Conference money for playing in the conference?). The 49ers have to replace their long-time vets, but have some good talent and are athletic, which makes them a tough match-up against this year's Bruins. Win, 8-3, 10-1.
Fresno State willl probably finish toward the bottom of the Mountain West, and if UCLA beat up on UNLV, which is projected to be one of the two best teams in the conference in the scrimmage last Saturday, we'll call this a win. 9-3, 11-1.
UCLA's last non-conference game is against Missouri, which is ranked 15th in the pre-season AP Poll. Since it's the 13th game of the season, we're going to guess -- and this is completel speculation -- that Muhammad will be in a UCLA uniform by this time. 10-3, 12-1.
UCLA kicks off Pac-12 play with the Bay Area schools coming to Pauley. The Bruins split with Cal and Stanford last year at home, and the teams are just about as good as they were last season. So, we'll go with the swep at home this year. 12-3, 14-1.
For the first conference road weekend, UCLA goes to Utah and Colorado. Utah is still one of the worst teams in the conference and might not be any better. Colorado is probably a little worse than they were last season, losing three starters, even though they have a great combo of Andre Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie. Colorado was a different team at home last season than on the road, getting the Buffaloes early in Pac- 12 play, before their new personnel is fully settled in, will be enough. 14 -3, 16-1.
The Oregon schools at Pauley should be a different story than the Oregon schools in Oregon last season, two games UCLA dropped. OSU returns four starters but without Jared Cunningham, who put his name in the NBA Draft. Oregon had a good 2011-2012 season and returns E.J. Singler, but will be dependent on the performance of many newcomers, including former UCLA commit, point guard Dominic Artis. 16-3, 18-1.
The Arizona road trip is pretty easy to call at this time. The Wildcats should be very good, with talent, depth, and veteran stars and leadership. ASU's Herb Sendek is on the hot seat, and it should be getting hot about this time, even though they're hyping up freshman point guard Jahii Carson as a program-changer. 17-4. 19-2.
It's almost impossible to predict what type of team USC is going to be, with many transfers now eligible, and injured players returning. We'll probably know pretty quickly in their pre-season when they face Long Beach State, San Diego State and take a trip to the Maui Invitational. It's at home, in Pauley, so we'll call it a win now, but we feel USC has a chance to be a team that challenges for the top third of the conference. 18-4, 20-2.
The Washington schools at home shouldn't be an easy weekend. The Huskies lost its two first-round draft picks, but are always a tough out for UCLA and WSU has one of the best players in the conference in Brock Motum, who is a tough match-up for UCLA, and some other good veterans. But at home in Pauley it's a sweep. 20-4, 22-2.
UCLA finishes off the conference schedule on a tough seven-game stretch. It goes to the Bay Area, where we foresee UCLA losing to either Cal or Stanford, but avoiding the sweep. 21-5, 23-3.
At USC isn't going to be easy. The Trojans might have found their roles by this time, and say what you want about Kevin O'Neill, the guy can coach. A close one but a win. 22-5, 24-3.
At home against the Arizonas. UCLA is usually good on its weekday conference game, so a win against ASU is pretty easy to call. If UCLA loses a conference game in Pauley all season it will be this one, because we think the Wildcat youngsters will be playing like sophomores by this time, and it's a Saturday game, when UCLA isn't usually as good. 23-6, 25-4.
UCLA concludes the regular season by traveling to the state of Washington and it's never an easy road trip for the Bruins. We don't know which game they'll drop, but we'll go with a split. 24-7, 26-5.
UCLA goes 14-4 in Pac-12 play, which probably puts them in a decisive second place. Even though it's pretty predictable, because most prognosticators are projecting Arizona to win the regular-season conference, every way we look at it -- at least in November -- we tend to agree.
UCLA, for whatever reason, just doesn't seem to ever have it going for the conference tournament. This year it's in Las Vegas instead of at the Staples Center, which reduce the amount of Bruin blue in the stands. We don't necessarily think they'll lose to Arizona in the final, but think they'll lose in the final, which makes them 2-1 for the tourney. 26-8, 28-6.
Given either record, and UCLA's RPI, it's pretty easy to project UCLA asa #3 seed, and there's a good chance it will in the West, sending the Bruins to San Jose for the second and third rounds. I think UCLA holds serve against the #14 seed and #11 seed in those rounds, especially with that little travel, but then will face a #2 seed in the Sweet 16. That could be a team like Kansas, Duke or Syracuse -- teams that have a type of athleticism that UCLA probably only saw a couple of times all season, and probably didn't match up well against. We think UCLA will be able to score, but the lack of athleticism in playing man-to-man defense against those types of teams will get exposed, and the Bruins fall in the Sweet 16.
Of course, this is dependent on a scenario of Muhammad having a 6 to 10-game suspension. If it's considerably more than that, throw out this entire prediction.
If this does happen, UCLA advancing to the Sweet 16, that's easily enough for UCLA to not even think twice about retaining Howland. Hopefully it's enough -- and UCLA looked good enough in its running style -- to attract some elite recruits for UCLA to sign in the spring.