Last year the UCLA Bruins fought their way back to the NCAA Tournament, but the young team was unable to advance past the first round. This year, the Bruins hope that alittle more experience will help the program return to it's glory days.

The UCLA Bruins (23-11 in 2010-11) ended their campaign with a 73-65 loss to the Florida Gators in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the third straight year that the Bruins did not make it out of the tournament’s first weekend following back-to-back trips to the Final Four. 

Last year’s UCLA squad was unusual in that there were no seniors on the roster. The Bruins will, however, lose two star players to the NBA in junior Malcolm Lee (13.1 ppg) and sophomore Tyler Honeycutt (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Will the Bruins be able to improve in 2011-12 as they play their home games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena while Pauley Pavilion undergoes renovations?

At guard…

Reeves NelsonThe Bruins do not have a great deal of depth at guard. Lazeric Jones (9.1 ppg, 3.6 apg) will return to the backcourt as a senior. Jones is not a great shooter, as evidenced by his 39% shooting percentage. This was his first year at UCLA after two seasons at John A. Logan College. The Bruins will need him to approach his Logan average of 14.5 ppg and 5.7 apg. 

Jerime Anderson (5.1 ppg, 2.6 apg) will need to provide senior leadership as well. Anderson’s playing time and stats actually dropped during his junior year, so he must prove that his development has not stalled. In all honesty, though, the Bruins do not have a lot of other experienced options at this point. They could, however, turn to fresh blood. 

Sophomore Tyler Lamb (2.6 ppg) should see increased playing time over his 12 mpg in 2010-11. Lamb’s offensive game will need improvement if he is to become an important member of the rotation. Coach Ben Howland seemed to lose faith over time, as Lamb’s minutes drastically decreased during Pac-10 play. 

Based on lack of depth at guard, four-star ESPU-100 recruit Norman Powell (Abraham Lincoln H.S., CA) may be thrown into the fire quickly. Powell is known for his driving ability and defensive intensity. Scouts say that he needs to work on shooting consistency and ball-handling skills. Based on the Bruins’ needs, look for Powell to make early contributions for UCLA. 

JUCO transfer De’End Parker (12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.0 apg at City College of San Francisco) will also work his way into the guard rotation. He was considered a major Division I prospect in 2009 before poor grades forced him to take the JUCO route. A strong season from Parker could make up for a lot of the apparent weaknesses in the UCLA guard rotation. 

Frontcourt 

Much of UCLA’s success will rest on the broad shoulders of 6’8” forward Reeves Nelson. The rising junior was the leading scorer (13.9 ppg) and rebounder (9.1 rpg) for the Bruins last season. Nelson shot 57% from the field, and improved his free-throw percentage to 62%. UCLA will lean on Nelson heavily in the paint as their top scoring option. 

Joshua Smith (10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) had a nice season at center for UCLA as a true freshman. His minutes steadily increased over the course of the campaign as Howland developed confidence in the big man, and Smith was a top offensive option by the end of the season. At 6’10”, 310 lbs., he needs to be more of a force on the boards, and one can expect that will come with another season of experience. Smith and Nelson should form a nice tandem in the middle that will give fits to the Pac-10. 

Brendan Lane (3.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and Anthony Stover (0.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg) will round out the rotation for the Bruins.

Outlook 

Ben HowlandGoing into the season, you know that a Ben Howland team is going to play tough, physical defense. The question with this squad will be whether it has the offensive firepower needed to compete on a national level. 

Even though there is not a lot of depth, I really like the Bruins’ frontcourt combination of Nelson and Smith. I think this duo will be able to compete on the interior against any team in the country. 

The backcourt, however, remains a major question mark. New Bruins Powell and Parker could very well be the key to the team’s success. I suspect that one, if not both, will be starters by the middle of the season. If this happens, it will mean that UCLA is getting solid guard play. I do not have a lot of confidence that the returning players can provide that.

As far as NCAA Basketball betting is concerned, expect UCLA to have another 20-win season and compete for a Pac-10 title. I am just not sure, however, that they have the athletes or depth to get to a Final Four in 2011-12.