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Howland clarifies UCLA point guard picture

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The UCLA Bruins have had many problems over the past couple-three years, many of them materializing off-court. One problem that has persisted on-court is the lack of a strong point guard presence. Not since the days of Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison has the ball really seemed to be in good hands the majority of the time.

You’ll forgive us if we still consider that to be a major problem for this year’s highly-touted version of the Bruins. UNC refugee Larry Drew II gets the nominal job of primary ballhandler this season, after going down in flames in that role in Chapel Hill. Ben Howland has already acknowledged that Drew is not his one and only as lead guard, however, now that freshman Kyle Anderson has been cleared to play by the NCAA. If anything, Howland looks forward to putting both players on the floor at the same time, according to the Charlotte Observer.

One is a freshman, the other a fifth-year senior. One hails from the East (New Jersey), the other the West (Los Angeles). One stands 6-foot-9, the other is 6-2.

But both are point guards, and coach Ben Howland said Thursday they’ll often be in the same lineup.

“I’ve always loved having two point guards on the floor,” Howland said at the Pac-12 Conference’s men’s basketball media day.

Howland noted that he employed that tactic when Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Jrue Holiday and Russell Westbrook wore Bruins blue.

Playing Anderson and Drew in tandem – for stretches at least – helps solve the riddle of which maestro will conduct UCLA’s potentially potent offense. They both will.

The distinction matters primarily when the team is on offense – either player may bring the ball up the floor, a tactic that was employed to great effect during the Bruins’ tour of China this summer. Defensively, Anderson is expected to guard opposing small forwards, a task to which his lanky frame is more naturally suited. Point guards will be assigned to Drew and his true backup at the point, 6’3″ Norman Powell.

There’s little doubt that this UCLA team is intriguing. It could be a good sort of intrigue if all of these diverse parts coalesce into a team. It could be a bad connotation of the word if cameraderie once again eludes a Howland-coached squad of Bruins.

The impact freshman of the 2012-13 season

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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 Lists we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Every season since the NBA implemented the one-year rule, college basketball fans have been treated to a plethora of freshman that jump on the scene and immediately make their presence known. Some stay for only one year, some stay for more. Here’ a list of players you may and may not know, but all are equally deserving of your attention when it comes to making an impact for their teams during the 2012-13 season.

THE ONES YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT

Alex Poythress – Kentucky

-Not the Big Blue Big Man you were expecting, huh? We’ve all heard about Nerlens Noel, from his raw offensive skill set to his Anthony Davis-clone defensive abilities. If that’s the case, Noel will get all the on-court attention from opponents, allowing Poythress to have a chance to get some spotlight. He’s got the penetration game and the build (6-8, 200) that screams “the next great John Calipari-coached combo forward.” With all the other incoming talent, he’s going to have to battle for buckets, but if you look at the skills coming in, the measurables and Cal’s history, Poythress fits the mold to possibly be another lottery pick out of Kentucky.

Kyle Anderson – UCLA

-No, this isn’t because Shabazz Muhammad isn’t eligible yet. He may be getting all the publicity, but the one thing Ben Howland’s best UCLA teams had were pass-first players he could rely on — Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison — which makes Anderson so crucial. He was by-far the best passer of the 2012 class and if he has a legitimate freshman campaign he’s probably only going to last for one season, anyway. He’s got the frame at 6-8, 215 and the vision to find anyone on the court. If he can average 6-8 assists and keep all those weapons — assuming Muhammad gets cleared — happy, he’ll be the reason Ben Howland gets deep into March.

Marcus Smart – Oklahoma State

-Teamed with LeBryan Nash, the 6-3, 200-pound Smart may be the missing piece for the most potent 1-2 punch in the  Big 12. The Cowboys aren’t long on guard depth this season, so expect Smart to start and play a lot of minutes, which in turn means he’ll have to minimize turnovers. He could be the difference between an NIT or an NCAA Tournament berth. I fully expect a first-team All-Big 12 season from him.

Perry Ellis – Kansas

-No one can replace Thomas Robinson. But someone has to fill his spot, and that’s probably going to have to be Ellis, ready or not. The 6-8, 225-pounder is going to be the relief to what might be the most bruise-filled season in Jeff Withey’s career. Ellis can do everything that T-Rob did, only obviously on a more raw level. There’s no better option at power forward. Could contend for as much as second-team All-Big 12.

Isaiah Austin – Baylor

Another tall, lanky power forward with wing skills that coach Scott Drew can find infinite uses for. It’s the cornerstone of the Drew attack and whoever is in that spot is almost guaranteed to be in the NBA after college under Drew (Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III, Ekpe Udou). Austin is this year’s lucky future millionaire. The 7-0, 210-pounder has such a skill set that some pundits were calling him a top pick if had been eligible for the 2012 Draft. He’s going to have to fill those voids left by Acy and Jones and is expected to use that length to catch a ton of lobs from Pierre Jackson.

THE ONES YOU’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT

Jordan Burgess – VCU

Burgess, 6-4, 210, will step into a loaded roster and has the expectations to fill his older brother Bradford’s shoes. He was the no. 100 player in Scout.com’s 2012 rankings and by all accounts, he’s got the exact same skill set that helped his older brother lead the Rams to a Final Four and two CAA tournament championships. He already knows what Shaka Smart expects.

C.J. Ford – Murray State

Murray State can’t survive on Isaiah Canaan alone, and that was supposed to be a question answered by Zay Jackson. But now Jackson appears to be facing a tough road back after being suspended following an incident this summer. Enter Ford, 6-1, 180, who has the tools to help fill the void left by the graduation of guards Jewaun Long and Donte Poole.

Semaj Christon – Xavier

He had a high-enough recruiting ranking to get his publicity, but unless you were a hardcore Recruitnik, Christon wasn’t a name up there with the Noels and Muhammads of 2012. If there ever was a freshman that I’d have to bet my life on to play early and often, Christon is most definitely it. Mark Lyons gets dismissed, heads to Arizona. Dez Wells gets expelled, he’s off to Maryland. Then freshman Myles Davis was declared a Prop 48, so Chris Mack will need the 6-3, 182-pound point guard to adjust quickly. It wouldn’t shock me to see Christon play in the 33-36-minute range in 2012-13.

Nick Osborne – Loyola-Chicago

I took to Twitter to find a name or two I hadn’t thought of, and @Title_BU reminded of Osborne, who was first-team all-state in Indiana and rated as high as the no. 2 player in the state. He’s got the size (6-8, 220) to toss people around in a conference like The Horizon League and in signing with a team that went 7-17 overall and 1-17 in conference, he’s going to be a central part of the Ramblers rebuilding efforts under Porter Moser.

Danuel House – Houston

This was a bit of a coup for third-year coach James Dickey. House was a high-major recruit that was supposed to be a get for an Arizona, Missouri or Georgetown. But the 6-7, 195-pound House stuck with the Cougars and he’s the big name in their 2012 recruiting class. There’s a huge logjam behind Memphis in Conference USA and if there’s a player that doesn’t play for the Tigers that can challenge for conference Freshman of the Year, it’s House.

NAMES TO WATCH: SOME OBVIOUS, SOME NOT SO MUCH
Archie Goodwin, Kentucky; Nerlens Noel, Kentucky; Sam Dekker, Wisconsin; Mitch McGary, Michigan; Anthony Bennett, UNLV; Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA*; Shaquille Cleare, Maryland; Montrezl Harrell, Louisville; Kris Dunn, Providence; Rodney Purvis, North Carolina State; Gary Harris, Michigan State; Langston Morris-Walker, Oregon State; Kellen Dunham, Butler; D.J. Balentine, Evansville; Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State; E.J. Reed, Long Island.
*Yet to be declared eligible by NCAA.
David Harten is the editor of The Backboard Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter at @David_Harten.

Can UCLA really rely on Larry Drew next season?

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On paper, UCLA looks like a team that should be able to compete for a Pac-12 crown, a trip to the Final Four, and maybe even a national title.

That’s what happens when you stock talents like Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Joshua Smith on the same roster.

But the Bruins have plenty of question marks, as well. Like, for starters, Anderson’s thumb injury. He underwent surgery and still isn’t cleared for contact. Muhammad suffered a sprained ankle working out a couple of weeks ago, and there is a very good chance that he ends up being suspended for a handful of games at the start of the season as well. And, of course, there’s Smith’s weight. Will he ever be in shape?

None of this is the biggest issue that UCLA faces next season, in my humble opinion. As far as this blogger is concerned, where UCLA needs to be concerned is at the point guard spot. The slow-footed, 6-foot-7 Anderson is a terrific play-maker, but it is difficult to player point guard at a championship level when you are slow-footed and 6-foot-7.

If that’s the way this plays out, then the Bruins will be relying on the one and only Larry Drew to run their team:

Ben Howland took Larry Drew II into his office Monday to continue coaching his mind as much as his playmaking skills. He needs both from Drew for UCLA to be a Pac-12 champ in the upcoming season. The North Carolina transfer has one season to play for the Bruins but he is the only true playmaker for UCLA. “He has the quickness and speed that we haven’t seen since Darren Collison,’’ said Howland. “He’s a very good decision maker. He’s gotten much stronger and improved his body. We have high expectations for him.’’

I want to feel good about this UCLA team next season. I really do. But there are so many question marks surrounding the program that I just cannot picture them putting it all together for an entire season.

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

Plenty of ex-UCLA players come to Ben Howland’s defense

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For a coach who reportedly either berates or ignores players, Ben Howland had more than a few of his former guys come to his defense the last few days.

A Sports Illustrated story casts the UCLA coach in an unflattering light and prompted an immediate reaction – and fairly soft defense – from the school. But a few players who were part of Howland’s Final Four teams and after found it a bit over the top.

“Man for this story to try and say it was on [Ben Howland] is beyond crazy,” tweeted Mike Roll, a UCLA guard from 2005 to 2010. “Coaches cant control how people act while they’re in their dorm …or at parties after games. He supplied us with the work ethic and leadership needed to get the job done. [Because] some players didn’t want to do what was necessary to win, cant blame him. He will find the players that are willing to do so.”

Former UCLA forward Lorenzo Mata-Real told The Dagger that Howland wasn’t even an absentee coach, praising Howland’s role in his life. Even Josiah Johnson, a reserve forward who didn’t play much under Howland and left in 2005 because he was unhappy, told The Dagger that he later realized Howland “wants everyone to be accountable for who they are as men.”

Then there are the pros.

Kevin love, Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo and Luc Mbah a Moute all praised Howland in this story from the L.A. Times that was posted in January. That’s some strong support for the end product Howland helps create.

Even some UCLA alums don’t fully understand why the onus is completely on Howland. The school’s all-time leading scorer, Don MacLean, had this to say to the L.A. Times:

“Personally I’m disappointed in these guys more than what Coach [Ben] Howland has or hasn’t done,” MacLean said. “Not to minimize anyone who drinks alcohol or might experiment with other things because it does happen, I’m pretty sure it does at just about every college, but if it gets in the way of your practicing and performances in games, then it’s something that shouldn’t be there.

“I wasn’t a person who sat in my dorm room and studied all day but nothing I did got in the way of coming to practice ready to go. Being social is part of being in college and I’m not going to condemn anybody, but this got in the way of UCLA being a good basketball team and that’s on the players.”

That’s some decent support. Now, if the Bruins’ on-court fortunes improve, Howland will be in the clear.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.