Top 25 Countdown: No. 25 UCLA Bruins

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 19-14, 11-7 Pac-12 (t-5th)

Head Coach: Ben Howland

Key Losses: Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, Reeves Nelson, Anthony Stover

Newcomers: Kyle Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad, Larry Drew II, Tony Parker, Jordan Adams

Projected Lineup:

G: Larry Drew II, Sr.
G: Shabazz Muhammad, Fr.
F: Kyle Anderson, Fr.
F: Travis Wear, Jr.
F: David Wear, Jr.
Bench: Joshua Smith, Jr.; Tony Parker, Fr.; Tyler Lamb, Jr.; Jordan Adams, Fr.; Norman Powell, So.

Outlook: I am not high on the Bruins heading into this season. In fact, I’d be surprised if you found any preseason rankings that had UCLA lower than this. When you look at what the Bruins bring back and what they add to their roster this season, the talent level is, frankly, impressive. Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson made up two-thirds of the consensus top three recruits in the Class of 2012, and they are joined by Tony Parker — a top 30 big man — and Jordan Adams — a top 75 wing — in what has to be considered Ben Howland’s best class since he took over in Westwood. And that’s before you factor in the addition of North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II.

When those four are added to the group of players returning — the Wear twins, Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb — it is easy to see why UCLA has plenty of hype heading into the season.

I’m not buying into it, and there are plenty of reasons why:

  • Eligibility issues: Muhammad’s recruitment is being investigated by the NCAA. The key issue they are looking into is his family’s relationship with a pair of financial advisors and how he paid for his unofficial visits. There are also concerns about his affiliation with Adidas. Muhammad was ineligible to go on the team’s August trip to China. Anderson’s recruitment is also being investigated, although he is expected to be cleared in time for the start of the season. Best case scenario? The investigation — and media inquiries about it — is a distraction the team has to deal with throughout the start of the season while Muhammad, and possibly Anderson, miss some important practice time to get used to their teammates. That’s not ideal, but it’s certainly better than the other possible outcome: having Muhammad (and Anderson?) miss a significant amount of the season.
  • Smith is still out of shape: I’ve made a personal decision to stop making jokes about Smith’s weight this season, because at this point I don’t believe it’s as simple as Smith “being fat”. With his inability to shed the pounds given what’s on the line for him — athletically and monetarily — by remaining out of shape, I don’t think it’s difficult to make the assumption that he has a serious overeating problem, which is an addiction and a disease. That’s not a joking matter. But it is an issue that leads me to believe we’ll never see Smith — who, given his size, soft hands and nimble feet, could be the best big man in the country — live up to his potential. I’d expect the Wears twins and Tony Parker to all be playing over Smith by January.
  • Who plays the point?: Howland has said that Drew will start for him and that he is the team’s “most indispensable” player. This is the same guy that left North Carolina in the middle of the season, unannounced, after watching the Tar Heels improve drastically when he got benched for Kendall Marshall. The irony? Drew may actually be the best option at the point for this Bruins team. Anderson is a terrific play-maker and a special passer, but he’s also 6-foot-8 and nicknamed “Slo-Mo” for a reason. If he’s playing the point, who is guarding Mark Lyons, Jio Fontan and Chasson Randle?

The bottom-line is that I simply do not like the make-up of this team. Howland made a name for himself as a head coach by putting together gritty, blue-collar teams that won games by controlling the pace of the game and digging in defensively. Does the rotation listed above really look like one that will be able to out-physical and out-tough anyone?

There are bigger issues, as well, regarding Howland’s leadership of the UCLA program. Remember the story from Sports Illustrated last February about the UCLA program? It certainly didn’t paint Howland in a flattering light and, frankly, makes it seem like he has lost the control over, and respect of, his team.

Predictions?: There is enough talent on the roster that UCLA will still win games, but I don’t see them contending for the Pac-12 title. I think a fourth or fifth place finish in the conference — which will be improved this season — is more likely. And while the conference as a whole may be better than it was last season, that’s not a guarantee that four or five teams will be headed to the NCAA tournament from the league. I’d bet on UCLA heading into the Pac-12 tournament needing to make a run to (at least) the title game for a shot at avoiding the NIT.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Quinnipiac set to hire Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy as new head coach

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Quinnipiac will introduce Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy as the team’s new head coach on Tuesday, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Dunleavy has helped the Wildcats to a national championship and multiple Big East championships as the team’s associate head coach. A former walk-on for Villanova who transitioned into a director of operations and later an assistant coach, Dunleavy is the son of Tulane head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. Baker’s brother, Mike Dunleavy Jr., is still playing in the NBA as well.

The 34-year-old Dunleavy has experience with a championship program at Villanova so it will be interesting to see what he can do running his own program for the first time. Quinnipiac hired Dunleavy to replace Tom Moore, who was fired after 10 years with the program.

The Bobcats went to an NIT and made a few other postseason appearances under Moore but the program has never been to the NCAA tournament since making the transition to Division I in the late ’90s.

Report: Duquesne hires Akron’s Keith Dambrot as new head coach

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Duquesne has hired Akron head coach Keith Dambrot to the same position, according to a report from ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman.

The 58-year-old Dambrot has been head coach at Akron since 2004 as he’s helped the program to three NCAA tournament appearances.

The former high school coach of LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Dambrot won two Ohio state championships with James before becoming an assistant coach at Akron in 2001. Dambrot eventually took over the head job over from Dan Hipsher.

Dambrot is reportedly getting a seven-year deal from Duquesne so the Dukes are making a major investment in him to turn around the basketball program.

Duke’s Christian Laettner shouts out North Carolina’s Luke Maye on Twitter after winning jumper over Kentucky

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Duke and North Carolina don’t have much in common.

But the historic college basketball rivals now have the distinction of earning late Elite Eight wins over Kentucky that involved a No. 32 making the winning shot.

Blue Devil legend Christian Laettner is famous for his 1992 buzzer-beater over Kentucky in the Elite Eight and he made sure to give some love to North Carolina sophomore Luke Maye after his own Elite Eight shot knocked out the Wildcats.

Rice’s Marcus Evans becomes one of top available transfers

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Rice sophomore guard Marcus Evans will transfer and play his final two seasons elsewhere, he announced on Monday.

The 6-foot-2 Evans has been a major scorer the last two seasons for the Owls as he averaged 19.0 points per game this season after putting up 21.4 points per game as a freshman.

With Rice head coach Mike Rhoades taking the VCU opening and the program struggling to consistently win, Evans seeking to play elsewhere should not come as much of a surprise.

Evans will have to sit out a transfer season before having two more years of eligibility but he should be one of the best options available this offseason. A proven scorer who has become more well-rounded this season, Evans could be a high-quality addition to any program this offseason.

A native of Chesapeake, Virginia, it will be interesting to see if Evans decides to play closer to home.

NBA Draft Stock Watch: Who has helped themselves in the NCAA Tournament?

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The term ‘prisoner of the moment’ is never more fitting than when weighing just how valuable an NCAA Tournament star turn is for a kid’s potential success as an NBA player.

We see it every year. Big tournament performances during deep runs in the dance is a great way to inflate draft stock while disappointing exits are an easy way to hurt it, even if it goes against the season-long data that is telling us something about a player. 

Who are the players that helped themselves the most this March? And who may have put a damper on their chances of hearing their name called early on draft night?

STOCK UP

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has played his way into the discussion as a potential first round pick by leading South Carolina to the Final Four. He has the physical tools to be an excellent defender in the NBA, and he certainly has the toughness and physicality, but it’s his shot-making that is the game-changer for him. He shot 39.4 percent from three on the season and is hitting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc in the tournament, and while the knuckle-ball action on his jumper is concerning, at some point it’s fair to wonder whether or not his less-than-ideal form is less important than the fact that it goes in. Thornwell, who was the SEC Player of the Year this season, will be an interesting 3-and-D candidate come draft night, and the spotlight on him from averaging 25.7 points while leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four will only help.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox solidified his standing as a potential top five during the tournament. The red flags are still there — Can he make threes in the NBA? — but at the end of the day, the NBA Draft is about whether or not you want one guy or the other guy. This is a draft that is absolutely loaded at the point guard spot, and for the second time this season, Fox outplayed a guy that many have slotted above him, Lonzo Ball. In the Sweet 16, he put up 39 points, the most impressive individual performance of the tournament, as Kentucky skated by UCLA more easily than most of us expected. Ball should probably still be considered the better, but when you’re sitting in that room making those decisions, it’s not going to be easy to bypass the guy that bested him twice.

Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell, a senior, has been one of the best defensive players in the country all season long, and never was that more apparent than when he went for 11 points, 13 boards, eight blocks and four assists against Kansas in the Elite 8. He totally changed that game, making Landen Lucas look like an eighth grader without any confidence and forcing the Jayhawks to miss a number of shots in the lane simply because they were aware that Bell could be lurking. He was probably worth a second round pick already, but that game very likely ensured that he will here his name called at some point on draft night.

Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: Dorsey is a shot-maker. That’s what he brings to the table offensively. He can score. He’s gone for at least 20 points in all seven tournament games — Pac-12 and NCAA — that Oregon had played this year, and he hit innumerable big shots in the process, including a game-winner against Rhode Island in the second round and a pair of absolute daggers against Kansas. Undersized scorers come a dime-a-dozen at that level, but Dorsey ensured that he will get a shot this spring.

D.J. Wilson, Michigan: Wilson has been one of the most intriguing prospects in college basketball this season given his size, athleticism and skill-set, and the attention that Michigan got as the darling of the conference tournaments and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament certainly didn’t hurt. I’m not convinced he’s in a position to be a first round pick, but I am certain that, if he opts to declare for the draft and sign with an agent, there will be a team willing to bet on the meteoric rise he had this year continuing.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

STOCK DOWN

Lonzo Ball, UCLA: With all the hype surrounding the Ball family heading into his showdown with De’Aaron Fox and Kentucky in the Sweet 16, you would’ve expected Lonzo, who has been terrific this season, to shine on the biggest stage. But that’s not how it went. He was completely overshadowed by Fox, who went for a career-high 39 points when they went head-to-head, bowing out of the tournament with nothing but a Sweet 16 to show for it. There’s a risk in making over-arching judgements on a player based off of one or two games when a season’s worth of data is telling you something else, but it is fair to note that Ball was outplayed in both of his matchups with another potential top five pick at his position.

Josh Jackson, Kansas: We’ve seen all season long what Josh Jackson can do on a basketball court, and one bad game where he got into foul trouble in the first four minutes is not going to change the way that scouts view his ability on the court. The concern with Jackson has nothing to do with basketball. It’s the off-the-court stuff, and it’s his temper. The biggest red flag surrounding him right now is an incident at a bar where he did more than $1,000 worth of damage to a person’s car. He got a few technical fouls this season. Against Oregon, he got into it with Duck players. Whether that affected his play, only Jackson will know, but it’s not all that hard to connect those dots. It’s easier to teach a 19-year old that cares too much to tone it down — the maturity that comes with getting older certainly helps — than it is to get a guy with no heart to be intense and tough, but that’s something NBA teams are going to have to consider when they decide whether to take Jackson in the top three of a draft this loaded.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Justin Patton, Creighton: Patton is incredibly talented and loaded with promise, but after seeing the dip in his production once Mo Watson went out with a torn ACL — 14.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on a 74 percent shooting vs. 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds on 61 percent shooting post Watson — is concerning. Throw in that he was totally underwhelming against an undersized front line of Rhode Island in a first round loss, and there will be questions asked about whether or not he is a guy that is worth a first round pick.

Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard, by all accounts, had a terrific season. He’s a skilled scorer that can get his buckets in a number of different ways. He’s a lights-out shooter with an advanced array of moves to create space to get his shot off and a knack for scoring around the rim with both hands. But the concerns with him is whether or not he will be able to do so against guys that are as athletic and strong as NBA wings are. Picking a second round matchup with a South Carolina team loaded with those kind of defenders to have his worst game of the season wasn’t exactly ideal timing.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart does everything well, and he certainly proved throughout the season that he had improved on the things that he needed to improve — shooting, playmaking, ability off the dribble. But the concern with Hart is whether or not he’s going to be able to get his own shot when the guys he plays against are bigger, quicker, more athletic and just as tough as he is, and the way Villanova bowed out of the tournament — with Hart being unable to create a shot or draw a foul on a drive to the rim — is a perfect summation of the concerns NBA teams have about him.