Run the Floor has yet to release our preseason top-25, but I can leak one piece of information: UCLA is No. 1.
UCLA fans are in a holding pattern as their team departs for China without the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation, Shabazz Muhammad. At issue is his amateur status, due to two men – Benjamin Lincoln and Ken Kavanagh – who have provided some sort of financial assistance to Muhammad in the past. I'll let the NCAA sort that one out. What I'm interested in is UCLA on the court. Specifically, how good can they be if it turns out that Muhammad cannot play?
Last season got off to an awful start with the Bruins losing to straight bums Loyola Marymount, and then Middle Tennessee. UCLA lost to 5 of their first 6 Division I opponents. Josh Smith was out of shape (again). Reeves Nelson was a douche (again). And UCLA had a rocky 19-14 season.
They lost a decent back court – Jerime Anderson and Lazerick Jones – to graduation. But then they snagged the best recruiting class in the nation, headlined by Shabazz Muhammad.
There's no doubt that Muhammad is immensely talented, but even without him they still have a roster with 9 consensus top-100 recruits, which is the most in the Pac-12, and tied for 2nd most in the nation.
The back court now consists of Larry Drew II, a former top-50 recruit and UNC transfer, who will provide assists and turnovers in large numbers. Norman Powell (consensus No. 53) got his feet wet on the wing last year. He's a former high volume scorer who can defend. And there's junior Tyler Lamb (No. 39) who was a starter last season. And if he can improve his outside shot a couple percentage points (36% on threes) he could be one of the guys UCLA desperately needs to stretch defenses.
And then there are the freshmen. Kyle Anderson (No. 3) is the player everyone would be talking about if not for Muhammad. He's 6-9 with legit point guard skills. And Jordan Adams (No. 59) is another very talented guard.
The front court is just as loaded. Josh Smith (No. 18) might even be in (relative) shape this season, and if he can stay on the court he has special skills. The Wear twins (David No. 37, Travis No. 38) are 6-10 freaks who can step out and hit threes. And freshman Tony Parker (No. 24) is another power guy who can step in and bang as a freshman.
In short, this team is loaded, with or without Muhammad.
So how far can they go?
Well, the team definitely has issues. Offensively they were 273rd at getting to the line and 267th at making free throws once they got there. The latter part probably won't improve this year, but they should get there a lot more, especially if Josh Smith stays on the floor. They also need to find someone who can make threes. But there are at least three players who should be able to do it: Lamb and the Wear twins. The question will be if any of the the other guards can.
Defensively they were solid last season (No. 35 nationally in efficiency). And with the size and athleticism they have on the roster, there's no reason they shouldn't be at least that good again.
So, again, how far can they go? The offense will improve (No. 72 last season). If they can get that to the 25-30 range and make a slight improvement on defense (~25) then you're looking at a team about in the 3-seed range. A little more improvement and they're right back to a 2-seed, which is where they were in 2006 and 2007 when they advanced to the Final Four.
Of course this is all speculation, but the take-home is that you shouldn't write off the Bruins if Muhammad doesn't qualify.