Wednesday, October 18

Men’s basketball season preview

Over the last two seasons, the UCLA men’s basketball team has played three regular season games against nonconference opponents ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

This season, the team will most likely play five games of that type in the span of three weeks.

“The nonconference (schedule) that we’re playing this year is probably the toughest we’ve played that I can remember since I’ve been here,” coach Ben Howland said.

For a young team that is struggling to catch up after a preseason chock-full of injuries, the Bruins will be playing against teams that are more experienced and probably more polished than they will have a chance to be.

The Bruins’ test is twofold. Holding their own against some of the nation’s best will be difficult, but using these games as early opportunities to mature will be infinitely more important.

Here are the most important dates on UCLA’s schedule from now until New Year’s:

Nov. 26-29: 76 Classic (Anaheim Convention Center)

The Bruins will open with Portland on Thanksgiving night. The Pilots return all but one player from last year’s team that upset Washington early last season.

The next night, the Bruins will probably meet their first ranked challenge of the season. Both possible opponents ““ Minnesota and Butler ““ are coming off NCAA Tournament appearances. The Golden Gophers return their top nine scorers, and some have the mid-major Bulldogs as a dark horse for the Final Four.

The Bruins are guaranteed a third game of the weekend, and, with the stacked lineup of teams in this field, it will probably be equally as challenging.

No. 8 West Virginia is a title contender from the always-powerful Big East, No. 24 Clemson is looking to make moves on the ACC elite, and Texas A&M has some gaps to fill but has enough talent to make a return trip to the postseason.

A Bruin victory in this round would look great on an NCAA Tournament résumé regardless of the opponent.

Dec. 6: Kansas (Pauley Pavilion)

If the Jayhawks can survive the first month of the season, the Bruins would welcome their first top-ranked team to Westwood since 2004 on this date. Kansas touts two of the five Preseason All-Americans in junior center Cole Aldrich and senior guard Sherron Collins, but doesn’t really have much drop-off after that. With all its starters returning, there are plenty of reasons why this team is a favorite to cut down the nets in early April. Any kind of close game should probably be considered a moral victory for the upstart Bruins.

Dec. 19: Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.)

The Bruins’ one and only venture outside of Southern California during the nonconference season will be no vacation. Player of the Year candidate Luke Harangody of Notre Dame is still around and definitely hoping to improve on his 2-for-12 performance at Pauley last year. UCLA’s bigs will need to step up their interior defense if they want any chance to take home a win.

Dec. 12: Mississippi State (Honda Center, Anaheim)

The No. 18 Bulldogs just lost to unranked Rider Broncs, but they are still waiting for the paperwork to clear on 6-foot-10-inch, 260-pound Fairfax High School graduate Renardo Sidney. Whether or not the NCAA allows Sidney to play, MSU still has senior forward Jarvis Varnado, who averaged a whopping 4.7 blocks per game in addition to leading the team in points and rebounds.

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