No. 13 UCLA opens its new stadium Friday night against Indiana State, a team picked because it was John Wooden’s only other coaching stop. The Sycamores return only one starter from a squad that went 8-10 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Here are some things to keep an eye on as the Bruins face an opponent that will provide more symbolism than challenges.
The new offense
Under Ben Howland, UCLA has topped 68 possessions per game just once: the 2004-05 season, when a Dijon Thompson-led squad averaged 71.6 per game, good for third in the Pac-10 and a first-round NCAA exit. The next four seasons were classic Howland half-court offense. The Bruins averaged between 63.5 and 66.1 possessions a game (ranking around seventh in the conference) but used them well. From 2005-09, UCLA ranked second, third, first and first in offensive efficiency.
The tempo stayed the same from 2009-10 on, but the system started to fail. The Bruins lost four of five starters — including first-rounders Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday — and their production immediately dipped to 101.2 points per 100 possessions (eighth in Pac-10), subsequently missing the Big Dance in two of three seasons.
Enter 2012, with UCLA switching to an up-tempo, player-friendly attack. Kyle Anderson and Larry Drew II will both see time at the one, with the former manning a lot of forward duties as well. Both will be relied on to push the tempo, but the former is nicknamed “Slow-Mo” and the latter was benched at UNC in favor of Kendall Marshall. Howland has called Drew the team’s most indispensable player; he’s the only senior on the roster, and may be the only one who can defend opposing point guards. Anderson is a natural playmaker, but he’ll need to be dangerous off-ball too.
The Wear twins and Norman Powell make up the rest of Friday’s projected starting lineup. David and Travis, the team’s top returning scorers and rebounders, have dependable jump shots and are versatile — but not dominant — in the paint. From what Howland has said, Powell might be the team’s most improved player. He’s definitely the most athletic option available, and UCLA will lean on him when it rests Drew.
The Larry Drew redemption tour
This week, Drew called the past 20 months of his life a roller-coaster ride — which may be an understatement. UCLA’s new guard transferred out of UNC last February in controversial fashion, leaving Chapel Hill after he lost his starting job to Kendall Marshall.
Drew’s stats in his final season at North Carolina weren’t exactly eye-popping, averaging 4.4 points and 3.9 assists through 21 games. That Marshall ended up reviving the Tar Heels’ offense didn’t help Drew’s reputation as pouty and spoiled. The Encino native now plays the role of the prodigal son returned. Entering the season with plenty to prove makes him a perfect emotional match with his new program.
The second unit
With Shabazz Muhammad (NCAA, shoulder) and Tyler Lamb (knee) both sidelined, the Bruins lack of depth is concerning especially as they transition to a faster offense. Josh Smith is saying all the right things — feeling better conditioned, no problem backing up Wear twins, reminding everyone not to let LMU-type teams sneak up like last year — but the 6-foot-10 center needs to start fulfilling his massive potential. The former all-conference freshman has incredibly soft hands, and will be dangerous in the low post if he can endure the constant running likely required of him.
Tony Parker is talented, but raw, and Jordan Adams could be the team’s best outside shooter. Adams did lose to Kari Korver in the Pauley Madness 3-point contest, but there’s little shame being bested by those genes.
Everyone on the team is playing the NCAA waiting game right now, but at least Muhammad’s health isn’t a big question mark. He’s day to day since straining his shoulder on Oct. 25, and could be in uniform for opening night. If so, he’ll draw plenty of eyeballs even if he isn’t eligible; rarely will warm-up dunks be so tantalizing.