Even though college football remains the most successful sports programs in Los Angeles, college basketball appears to be closing the gap for USC and UCLA. Two consecutive recruiting classes for the Bruins and the Trojans have put both teams in a position to have a breakout year. While UCLA is poised to be the dominant college basketball team in LA, USC still has potential to sneak up on the Pac-12. However, it will take much more than just talent for either team to succeed this season. So, let's take a look at the cards each team will play in the ever volatile poker game that is Pac-12 Basketball.
Departures: Khalil Dukes (Transfer), Brendyn Taylor (Transfer)
Returnees: Katin Reinhardt, Nikola Jovanovic, Jordan McLaughlin, Julian Jacobs, Elijah Stuart
Newcomers: Chimezie Metu (ESPN100 #40), Bennie Boatwright (ESPN100 #87)
Don't let the size of USC's recruiting class fool you, the two man class will bring ample support to the Trojans. Both Chimezie Metua and Bennie Boatwright are ranked in the ESPN100. Furthermore, both will help fix the biggest issues from last season. Metu can be likened to a younger, and hopefully more punctual, Wes Gordon. All kidding aside, Chimezie Metu will be an excellent rim protector for USC. His athleticism will allow him to rotate and help prevent opponents from scoring off the drive. Bennie Boatwright will help the Trojans on the other side of the ball. Despite his size, Boatwright has a silky smooth jumper good from everywhere on the court. He is one of the few big men in the country with a solid outside shot. He will not only be a threat to score in the paint, he will also be an excellent option from beyond the arc.
With all five starters, the sixth man, and nearly every role player returning for USC, the Trojans have an opportunity to take a big step forward. However for any progress to be made this season, Katin Reinhardt, Nikola Jovanovic, and Jordan McLaughlin must step up in their roles as leaders on the team. The 2014-15 season lacked maturity and leadership, and their schedule reflected just that. All three are the best players in their respective positions, and were all top scorers last season. It is essential these three not only improve on a physical level, but a mental one as well. Furthermore, Jordan McLaughlin must rehab his shoulder the very best he can. Whether or not he is healthy, he may have a large impact on the success of the Trojans this season. At the same time, Julian Jacobs must be ready to start on opening night, regardless if McLaughlin is healthy or not. While Jacobs did a relatively decent job last year stepping in for the injured McLaughlin, he needs to be ready for either a starting role, or at least a very prominent role, as McLaughlin's shoulder will be constantly tested. For the rest of the team, they need to improve their overall shooting. Last season, USC ranked 238th in overall field goal percentage. Reinhardt, Jovanovic, and McLaughlin will not be able to carry this team by themselves for the whole year. The rest of the team must be able to score at least somewhat when the stars of the team are having a bad night.
Best Case Scenario: McLaughlin, Reinhardt, and Jovanovic all become stars in the Pac-12. The rest of the team picks up the slack. Jacobs becomes an excellent sixth man for the Trojans. The freshmen provide that much needed boost to push USC over the top. The Trojans spend the year in the upper middle of the Pac-12. Andy Enfield finds the magic that was once with him at Florida Gulf Coast and the Trojans make a solid run in the NIT, after a mostly justified stub from the NCAA Tournament.
Worst Case Scenario: The team does not mature whatsoever during the offseason. McLaughlin cannot fully heal, and Jacobs is not able to handle a leadership position. Jovanovic, and Reinhardt make names for themselves, while the rest of the team completely struggles. The Trojans spend another year trapped in the basement of the Pac-12, and the Athletic Directory at USC realizes that maybe he hired the wrong coach from Florida Gulf Coast.
Departures: Norman Powell (Senior), Kevon Looney (NBA Draft), Wanaah Bail (Transfer), David Brown (Senior), Kory Alford (Senior), Nick Kazemi (Senior)
Returnees: Bryce Alford, Tony Parker, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsch
Newcomers: Prince Ali (ESPN100 #41), Aaron Holiday (ESPN100 #88), Alex Olesinki (4 Stars: ESPN), Ikenna Okwarabizie (JUCO Transfer)
Despite the fact that UCLA loses arguably their two best players to the NBA Draft, this year's recruiting class will more than help fill the void left behind. The Bruins will add two ESPN100 recruits along with an under the radar, four star big man, and a potential filled JUCO transfer. Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday look to be the biggest impact recruits for this season. Ali, with his explosive, posterizing dunks and solid shooting ability is a well rounded shooting guard who can do a little bit of everything. He has very good chance of being a starter come opening night. Holiday will provide much needed minutes for the Bruins, most likely coming off the bench this season. Often he shows shades of his brother, NBA guard Jrue Holiday, with his excellent finishing ability and court vision. Alex Olesinki should help add depth to the UCLA front court. His solid footwork in the post will prove valuable. Lastly, JUCO transfer Ikenna Okwarabizie will be one to watch this season, as the Pac-12 has a knack for landing breakout JUCO transfers.
The Bruins and Coach Steve Alford will be put to the test this season in seeing whether or not they can rebound from losing their two best players. Even with the departures of Powell and Looney, UCLA returns starters Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, and Tony Parker, along with solid rotation player Thomas Welsh. The returning starters must shoulder nearly all of the load this coming season if the Bruins want to be successful. Furthermore, all three must stay healthy the entire season. Outside of Alford, Hamilton, Parker, and Welsh, UCLA lacks depth in their returning players. The freshmen must all be ready to step into big roles immediately, especially Prince Ali. It is quite possible that the Bruins will have Ali fill the vacated roll of Norman Powell. Overall, the team must work on shooting. Outside of Bryce Alford, the rest of the Bruins struggle to score from distance. Without a force to drive like Powell, UCLA will be relegated to space the floor through their shooting. Lastly, the big men must all elevate their defensive presence this offseason. If not, UCLA will struggle to win games.
Best Case Scenario: The Bruins pull it all together in the offseason. Alford, Hamilton, and Parker take leadership roles and pilot the team to success. Prince Ali becomes the most overlooked recruit in the country and becomes an unstoppable force, and the other freshmen surprise the league. The rest of the team improves their outside shooting, and UCLA spends most of their time in the upper echelon of the Pac-12 rankings. The Bruins sneak into the NCAA Tournament for two consecutive years, but this year the NCAA can legitimately justify their admittance.
Worst Case Scenario: It is revealed that Powell and Looney were the core of the team. The returning starters cannot step up to the challenge. Prince Ali and the rest of the freshman were overhyped thanks to good recruiting videos. The rest of the team struggles to give valuable minutes. UCLA fights to break the .500 mark, and by the end of the year, Steve Alford, being so fed up with his team underperforming all season, injures a ball boy when he mentally snaps and throws a chair mid game.
Whether or not Steve Alford ends up throwing a chair like his own coach did, UCLA and USC both have solid potential for the 2015-16 basketball season. If all goes well this season, Los Angeles will be on its way to becoming one of the best cities in the Pac-12 for basketball.