TAMPA, Fla. “”mdash; Tyler Honeycutt thinks UCLA will be a top-five team next year.
Malcolm Lee loves the team’s potential.
And when coach Ben Howland was asked about next year’s prospects, he took a sip of his water before answering with a smirk.
“I think we could be pretty good,” he said.
The key word of course is “could.” The other key word might be “if.”
The Bruins could be a top-five team as Honeycutt suggested if the sophomore forward decides to forgo the NBA and return for a third year. The same goes for, the junior guard, Lee.
Asked if the Bruins, with their nucleus of returning talent, are a team he wants to be a part of, Honeycutt responded in the affirmative.
“It is,” he said. “I love all these guys.”
But Honeycutt also said he would make his decision after returning to school to take finals and consulting with his mom.
Lee was equally undecided about his impending decision.
“I haven’t really thought about that,” he said.
If both Honeycutt and Lee were to return next year, the Bruins would be in the unique situation of not losing a single player. That means that the very thing that may have hindered the Bruins’ tournament run this year could help them return next year and help them go farther.
UCLA didn’t have a single senior on this year’s squad, but they’ll have two next year if Lee returns. The entire roster had 32 minutes of tournament experience heading into this year’s edition of March Madness. Next year they would have 432.
In the locker room after Saturday’s loss to Florida, many players saw 2012 as the silver lining to the loss. Sophomore forward Reeves Nelson was one such cautious optimist.
“I know I’m going to work harder than I ever have before,” he said. “If we get most of the guys back, I think we can be great.”
Asked if he’ll return, Nelson was rather forthcoming.
“Yeah, I think I will,” the Bruins’ leading scorer said. “I haven’t really thought about it because I wanted to take this as far as I can go, but I’ll sit down, talk to coach, talk to my parents and see what happens. … Everybody knows we have a chance to be a great team next year. And with my little brother coming down (to play football), it would be great to go to college with my little brother.”
Freshman center Joshua Smith was extremely popular with the local media in Tampa, largely because of his size and ability to dominate the paint. Smith didn’t disappoint on Saturday, leading the Bruins with 16 points causing some to seriously speculate about his future with UCLA.
Smith quelled the rumors, telling the Los Angeles Times that he knows he needs to lose more weight, and confirming to the Los Angeles Daily News that he would return.
Howland also said that he was “pretty sure” the big center would come back after a serious off-season workout.
“His potential is so exciting,” Howland said of Smith. “So it’s going to be the off-season, what he does, his conditioning. There’s not many like him in the country. He could be one of the best bigs.”
If both Smith and Nelson return for the Bruins as expected, UCLA could encounter a serious logjam in the front court.
Along with Smith and Nelson, twin forwards Travis and David Wear will become eligible to play next season a year after transferring from North Carolina. Howland has alluded all season to how much both players have helped improve practice.
Redshirt freshman center Anthony Stover and sophomore forward Brendan Lane both also play in the front court and got considerable minutes and even starts this season.
How Howland will spread limited playing time among six front court players remains to be seen.
But for the time being, Howland said that the coaches will give the players a full three weeks off to mend their bodies before beginning the quest for another tournament run.
They plan on going further next time around.
“We’re not satisfied,” junior guard Jerime Anderson said. “We’re not.”