After letting Division II Cal State San Bernardino hang around for longer than it would have liked, UCLA turned to a strategy that everyone saw coming.
Not a soul inside Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario thought that the ball was going anywhere but to the paint, specifically to Joshua Smith.
The sophomore center became a frontcourt floor general while leading UCLA to an exhibition victory, dictating the Bruins’ offensive flow from closer to the basket than UCLA teams are normally accustomed to.
Smith serves as the front line’s anchor ““ in terms of his role and his 305-pound presence on the court ““ but there’s no shortage of depth when it comes to height for coach Ben Howland.
With six players standing taller than 6-foot-8, UCLA is looking to turn Ben Ball into Big Ben Ball.
“We definitely want to be imposing,” redshirt sophomore center Anthony Stover said. “You can’t get past us, you can’t score on us, you definitely aren’t getting a rebound over us.”
The message was delivered loud and clear before a single ball was tipped.
“UCLA, you walk through the airport and they scare the heck out of you,” California coach Mike Montgomery said at Pac-12 Media Day. “They’re huge. You’ve got to think that UCLA’s going to be awfully good.”
The front line is as big as they come in college basketball, and the main reason UCLA was tabbed to finish first in a weakened conference.
Smith and Stover, 6-foot-10 centers, return along with 6-foot-8 junior forward Reeves Nelson, 6-foot-9 junior forward Brendan Lane and the twin package UCLA has patiently waited a year and a half to utilize since their transfer from North Carolina: redshirt sophomore forwards David and Travis Wear, both 6-foot-10.
Forget fitting these guys on the soon-to-be heavily used team bus. Fitting the big men on the court is a more pressing issue, and one that doesn’t come without some flexibility.
David Wear will keep fans of opposing teams wondering why the words “small” and “forward” were ever placed next to each other. Plenty flexible after a yoga regimen, Wear is sliding over to the position vacated when Tyler Honeycutt left for the NBA.
It comes with some adjustments. His post moves and knack for rebounding will come in handy, but his purpose now is to stretch the floor with shooting and use screens instead of setting them.
He’ll also have to adapt on the defensive end. Wear thinks he’ll tower over anyone that has to guard him this year, but that also means he’ll have to keep up no matter how quick his opponent is on offense.
“Mentally, I’m looking at the game a different way, whereas before it was pounding, setting screens, rebounding, stuff like that,” he said. “It’s really honed my skill as a basketball player and adapting to different parts of the game.”
The different positions David and Travis play might be one of the few ways to tell them apart. Both have the same smooth shooting touch that extends all the way back to the 3-point arc, and a refined back-to-the-basket game.
That versatility will be needed in a year when UCLA is short on experienced guards. As tall as the Bruins are, they’ll need some bigs to do the little things.
Nelson turned in another offseason spent virtually living in the gym and, like many of his teammates, went head-to-head with NBA players at the Student Activities Center. He got to pick the brain of many a pro, carefully watching as they handled various game situations.
When it came down to fundamentals, the shortest player out of UCLA’s six forwards and centers looked to guards. The Bruins’ starting power forward listened carefully to former Bruin and NBA veteran Baron Davis, focused on helping his team in the short-run and boosting his professional stock in the future. That meant working on his jumper, which he’s now ready to let fly.
“If I hit a couple open shots, they’re going to have to come out on me more and then I’ll be able to go to the basket that much easier,” Nelson said.
Even though Stover, a long defensive spark plug who Howland described as sometimes “too aggressive defensively,” has yet to play while recovering from a shoulder injury.
Lane has failed to see the floor. That still gives UCLA Lane’s 60 games worth of experience off the bench and, more importantly, ensures that there’s enough basketball to go around.
“All of our touches are all numbered, and everybody’s getting enough touches,” Smith said.
Howland will make sure of that, even though he didn’t see this situation playing out the way it did. He expected both Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee to stay another year, which would have kept UCLA’s starters intact.
Instead, he’s entering his ninth year as UCLA coach with a team unlike any he’s had in Westwood.
“A lot of stats, that we’ve gotta replace, and a lot of minutes too,” Howland said.
Regardless of his frontcourt, Howland has liked to lean on a guard to control the offense in the past. This year, with six burly bodies to intimidate the opposition, he’s flipping it so UCLA plays inside-out.
Howland may have too many options, but it’s a problem the Bruins like to have.
“Who wouldn’t like that?” senior point guard Lazeric Jones rhetorically asked. “I love having that opportunity to have so many bigs who can do so many things in the post. I just have to find a way to make sure they get the ball.”