After a disappointing 2015-16 season, the UCLA Bruins basketball team is ready to have a bounceback year and they have all of the tools necessary to do so. The Bruins missed the tournament with a 15-17 record last season. They finished tenth in the PAC-12 after going 6-12 in conference play. For one of the most influential programs in college basketball history, this was not how the team expected to have its season to go. Luckily for the Bruins, historical greatness has its benefits. Teams such as UCLA may have down years, but they never stay down for long.
Despite the poor season, UCLA managed to secure a top five recruiting class. The Bruins brought in Ike Anigbogu and TJ Leaf (ranked at number 25 and 16 respectively by Rivals.com.), but the recruiting class will be headlined by number 4 recruit Lonzo Ball. The thought of what the incoming freshmen might do for this UCLA team has fans salivating in anticipation.
Not only do the Bruins boast one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, they also have one of the best returning classes in the PAC-12. Statistics provided by Pacific Takes’ own Eli Boettger have the Bruins ranked 3rd in the PAC-12 in returning minutes, 2nd in returning points, 4th in returning rebounds, and 1st in returning assists. UCLA is entering the new season with four of its five starters returning, including last year’s top scorers Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. With the freshman talent that UCLA is bringing in, it’s unlikely that all of the returning starters will keep their starting roles. However, as long as the team focuses the common goal of winning, the experience off the bench should work wonders for the Bruins.
Most pre-season rankings have UCLA just outside the top 20, which is a fair assessment. UCLA was underwhelming last season, so they shouldn’t jump many of the top teams in the rankings just yet. But, with the excellent blend of experience and talent, it would be surprising to see UCLA finish outside of the top 25 heading into March Madness.
We won’t fully know what the Bruins are capable of until December, when they’ll have their toughest stretch of non-conference play. In a two week stretch, they’ll play at Kentucky, at home vs Michigan, and at a neutral site against Ohio State. If UCLA could just go 2-1 in this stretch, many would be convinced that this team is a true competitor. UCLA will also have to prove that it can compete when it opens up conference play by battling it out with the PAC-12 favorite Oregon Ducks in Eugene.
At the moment, UCLA is the common pick to finish third in the PAC-12. If everything clicks, UCLA could go as far as winning the PAC-12. However, if it doesn’t click UCLA could have as underwhelming of a season as last year. This would without a doubt put Steve Alford in the hot seat. With so much left to mere speculation, UCLA is one of the toughest teams to predict, but has the potential to be a dark horse contender for the PAC-12 title that’s widely considered to be between Arizona and Oregon.