John Wooden joked last season that the UCLA community still believes domination of the college basketball world is possible, and Bruins coach Ben Howland sat there and laughed with so many others.
A year into Howland's tenure at the school, it's evident the Bruins have a long way to go just to be one of the best teams in the Pac-10.
Last season UCLA finished below .500 (11-17) for the second consecutive season.
"It's like dying," Howland said. "Every time you lose, it's like dying all of a sudden. It hurts. It's painful. If it's not, you're not a real competitor."
Howland welcomes in a highly regarded freshman class, but the newcomers join a group that isn't chock full of talent. The Bruins took a huge hit when forward Trevor Ariza left after one season to pursue a professional career.
UCLA should benefit from Dijon Thompson pulling his name out of the NBA Draft and returning for his senior season. Thompson led an anemic offense last season by scoring 14.4 points per game; the Bruins averaged 66.5 points, their lowest output since the 1959-60 season.
FRONTCOURTHowland described UCLA's center and power forward spot succinctly: "thin."
It's a particularly true assessment after the defection of Ariza and the loss of four-year contributor T.J. Cummings. It leaves the Bruins without an established post presence.
UCLA will need a bulked-up Michael Fey producing more points, rebounding better and staying out of foul trouble. The Bruins would like to develop Ryan Hollins as a pure center, but depth could force him to play power forward.
Rebounding wasn't UCLA's forte in Howland's inaugural year in Westwood, but freshman Lorenzo Mata specializes in board work. Mata isn't a great scorer, but he's quick on his feet, loves to rebound and is a natural shot-blocker.
The scary part is that Fey and Hollins are foul-prone, and Mata figures to struggle in that area at times because of his youth.
"Not a lot of depth," Howland said. "Really, Hollins is going to end up having to play the four for us, out of necessity. He's more of a five than he is a four."
Beyond that trio, little-used Josiah Johnson will get some minutes, and even Matt McKinney, who missed last season with a foot injury, is expected to play. But if Howland elects to go with a small lineup, Thompson could find himself playing the power forward spot to give UCLA more athleticism and an advantage in quickness.
BACKCOURTUCLA has some depth on the perimeter, and the competition should be fierce, particularly leading up to the Nov. 20 opener against Chicago State.
Cedric Bozeman is the incumbent at point guard, but highly touted freshman Jordan Farmar could take over that spot at any point. Farmar is a tenacious competitor with a consistent shot and an ability to distribute the ball. Teams played off the poor-shooting Bozeman but will have to respect Farmar's shot.
The choices at the off-guard spot are plentiful, which will allow UCLA to play smaller and use a three-guard lineup. Thompson, who can make shots off screens but needs to show he can create his own shot, is about the only given starter.
Farmar and Bozeman will battle for the point spot, and freshman Arron Afflalo should contend with senior Brian Morrison for the other guard spot.
Freshman Josh Shipp is a tremendous shooter who could take minutes away from backup guard Janou Rubin.
FINAL ANALYSISUCLA isn't ready to make an NCAA tournament run, and the rebuilding project will need a few years. But the better competition in practice and the fiery approaches of Farmar and Afflalo will get the program headed in the right direction.
An NCAA tournament berth is a long shot, but the NIT would give UCLA's four incoming freshmen postseason experience. With a soft non-conference schedule, the Bruins should be playing after the Pac-10 tournament for the first time in three seasons.