Three Big Things: UCLA

In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: UCLA.

1. Oh, the uncertainty!

On Wednesday, we talked about North Carolina, and why -- hugely talented and highly used departures, little-used replacements, and so on -- it was such a difficult team to predict. UNC may have its fair share of uncertainty, but it’s got nothing on the UCLA Bruins. Every possible outcome is officially on the table.

Let’s start with the most uncertain dynamic of this roster, which also just so happens to be the most important: The eligibility -- or lack thereof – of Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. Muhammad and Anderson, the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked small forwards in the class of 2012, and both top-five players overall, are about as highly touted as recruits come. The investigation into Muhammad’s potential acceptance of improper benefits during his recruitment is nothing new; to be safe, UCLA kept him out of its offseason trip to China. Anderson, on the other hand, participated in the China trip.

Whatever the eventual details on both players, what matters is whether they’ll be able to play. As of right now, we just don’t know. If one or (say it ain’t so) both is held out for any length of time, it would be a major blow, as both players are the heart of UCLA’s top-ranked recruiting class and the major cause for sudden renewed optimism around this recently flagging program. Will they both be in uniform on opening night?

2. Even the players we know will be in the lineup come November are uncertain. Incoming recruit Tony Parker's minutes, production and playing style have to fit in alongside forwards Joshua Smith and Travis and David Wear. Or take the Wear twins, who showed flashes of productive hoops last season off the bench, but have yet to justify the large hype they generated during their recruitment to North Carolina, or their eventual transfer to UCLA. Or take Smith, a preternaturally gifted forward with great feet and soft hands -- in another life, he could have made an incredible left tackle -- who has yet to come anywhere close to realizing his potential because he’s yet to come anywhere close to being in college basketball shape.

Or take Larry Drew II. The last time we saw Drew II, he was coming off a season running North Carolina’s offense during one of its worst seasons in decades. The next year, with a guy named Kendall Marshall on the bench, Drew II was ineffective again. When Roy Williams said enough, and rightly told Drew II to come off the bench to make way for Marshall’s gifted passing ability -- a switch that basically unlocked the entire North Carolina attack -- Drew II quickly transferred from the program. Now UCLA coach Ben Howland has given Drew II the keys to his offense; the point guard will run the show in a lineup that will require a deft and balanced touch. This doesn’t seem to make much sense until you consider Drew II’s talent as a perimeter defender; Howland loves great perimeter defenders.

Can Drew II be trusted to handle the task? In today’s Five Questions feature, the point guard says all the right things about how grateful he is for a second chance, and how much he wants to get his team to the mountaintop (even if his comments about his displeasure at UNC still ring somewhat hollow). But what if it doesn’t work? What if he’s benched again? What, if anything, will that do to UCLA’s chemistry? There are so many questions here.

3. Which brings us, finally, to Howland. The 2011–12 season was hardly a bright spot in the coach’s otherwise illustrious UCLA tenure (which, let’s remember, included three straight Final Fours). Howland began the season dealing with Reeves Nelson’s nonsense and ended it by having his entire program -- including detailed accusations that he coddles star players and lets them run roughshod over his teams -- put under a heat lamp by Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann.

Before Howland sewed up the best recruiting class in the country, many UCLA fans argued it was time to cut ties. But Howland deserves a shot to make this talent-rich team work. The question is whether he can. As Dohrmann’s piece highlighted, Howland seems at his best with teams full of smart, hard-nosed, unheralded players. The last time he landed star-studded recruiting classes, many of his players transferred while his program struggled to recover.

The 2012–13 Bruins have more talent than any team Howland has coached. This should be a blessing. But it hasn’t worked in the past, and this year, with Howland’s job almost certainly on the line, the stakes have never been higher.

UCLA may begin the season ranked No. 1. It will almost certainly start in the top five. On paper, that makes sense. But on the court, where it matters, can Howland turn this collection of talented parts into something greater?

Just two months from the start of the season, nothing is guaranteed. Everything is on the table. Stay tuned.