Key Returners: Darren Collison (14.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.8 APG), Josh Shipp (12.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.1 APG)
Key Losses: Kevin Love (17.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.9 APG), Russell Westbrook (12.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 4.3 APG), Luc Richard MBah a Moute (8.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG)
Key Recruits: Jrue Holiday (5/5 Rivals, #1 PG), J'mison Morgan (5/5 Rivals, #4 C), Drew Gordon (4/5 Rivals, #15 PF)
With the loss of two lottery picks and a second rounder it is fair to argue that no team in the Pac 10 lost nearly as much talent as ucla after the end of last season. Additionally, in a conference that is generally lacking in the front court ucla may have more questions to address at the power forward and center than nearly ebry other team in conference as they do not return a single big that has made large contributions. There are role players to be sure, but no proven dominant scorer or rebounder. It is clear that the Bruin's face a lot of problems, but thinking that this may drop them out of the top of the Pac 10 would be a serious mistake.
UCLA returns a number of strong players despite the aforementioned losses in personnel. First and foremost is Darren Collison who returned after being Derrick Rose'd in the NCAA tournament semifinal. Despite the dominant performance by Rose, Collison is a very quick and strong, and will bring a huge boost of experience to arguably the most important position on the court. Although there are questions surrounding his lack of assists last year despite the presence of Kevin Love down low, it is clear that Collison has the athleticism and talent to be a great PG as evidenced by his being voted as a preseason All American. In addition the Bruins bring back senior sharpshooter Josh Shipp and a plethora of front court reserves including former McDonalds All American James Keefe and forward Alfred Aboya.
The Bruins also welcome the consensus number one recruiting class headlined by local prospect Jrue Holiday. Holiday along with Collison and Shipp form one of the nation's best back courts, and his Holiday's should help tremendously to offset the loss of scoring from Russel Westbrook. In addition, two high major prospects at the PF and C positions in Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan, respectively, should help out ucla's interior woes. Morgan in particular may be the bruins only true option at center and if he develops physically and learns Ben Howland's defensive system then it would not be surprising to see him crack the starting lineup at some point in the season. Regardless, either of these players speedy development could help set ucla farther apart from ASU or USC in the race for the conference championship this season.
So despite major losses and tough problems ucla is still the likely favorite to win another conference championship. And although the bruins have earned the benefit of the doubt thanks to excellent coaching and three straight final four trips, there is honestly not much doubt to begin with thanks to the return of a number of key players and an elite recruiting class. Although it pains me to say it, until USC hears about Alex Stepheson's eligibility, ucla is still best in the west for now.
Prediction: 1st (but not quite as far ahead of the pack as in previous years)