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Behind Enemy Lines: UCLA Bruins Basketball

Finally, a real team! We hooked up with DCBruins from the fantastic UCLA Bruins blog Bruins Nation to get a bit more of an inside look at this year's team. We all know the book on UCLA - the most storied basketball program in the country. Ben Howland left the Pittsburgh Panthers 8 years ago to return to his alma mater - something I criticized last week (not what you think) and something the UCLA fans didn't quite understand.

Let me clear that up - Ben Howland is a very good coach, and I respect him a ton. 3 Final Fours in 7 seasons on the West Coast. Hard to argue with that. I'm more upset with him for leaving us Jamie Dixon, who is one of the best coaches in the country in my opinion.

No hard feelings Bruins fans - onto the questions! Be sure to also head to Bruins Nation where I tackle some questions from DCBruins.

How would you rate the job Ben Howland has done so far with the program?

Ben Howland has taken UCLA to three final fours in his seven years. He did that arguably with three different stars (Jordan Farmar in 2006, Aaron Afflalo in2007, and Kevin Love 2008).

He has one disaster (unfortunately last year) which was due to an unexpected early departure (Jrue Holiday), numerous injuries (UCLA stated 5 people at Center last year) and an underachieving 2008 recruiting class (Ironically that class was ranked number one in the nation.)

Last, UCLA has more players in the pros than any other school and Howland is a main reason for that.

So, we are happy with him but he needs to bounce back from last year, which I believe he will.

See you for more Q&A after The Jump.

What are your expectations for this year's Bruins team? Can you compete for a Pac-10 title?

The University of Washington returns almost their entire team, including three guys who could start at point for most teams and they came within a couple questionable calls from beating Duke in the Tourney. So they have to be the favorites in the PAC 10.

But after that, we should be in the running for 2nd or 3rd place in the PAC 10 and in the NCAA Tourney again. And who knows, this team is really young and just getting started. It is hard to say how good they can be at the end.

Ben Howland's teams at Pitt were always defined by their overall toughness and defense. Has that approach translated over to his work at UCLA?

Three final fours says yes. If it was not for a once in a generation Florida team who knows UCLA may have had banner 12 or 13.

However, this is not your Ben Howland teams of the past. This one runs as well. Those of you thinking you will see Howland of Pitt days may be in for a surprise.

Give me the one player that Villanova fans will want to keep an eye on Wednesday night.

Joshua Smith. He is a relative quick strong 300+ pound Center. He has had problems keeping out of foul trouble but IF (and like everything with Joshua it is a BIG if) he can stay in the game he can potentially alter things. Unlike most tall basketball players he is also wide. (He outweighs Yarou by 50 pounds.)

Even if he has problems against Villanova. Smith is a guy who by the end of his career may be a unique and dominant player. Basically, someone you might want to say, "I remember seeing Josh Smith in his first road game . . . "

I'm excited to see Antonio Pena/Mouphtaou Yarou match up with Tyler Honeycutt/Reeves Nelson. We're excited about our frontcourt, but we haven't seen a real test. This will define the game in my opinion. What are your thoughts on this matchup?

Not sure that is the right matchup. I think Stokes may matchup with Honeycutt. Honeycutt sometimes acts like a sort of point forward. It will be interesting how well he will do against a very good defender like Stokes.

Nelson is a hard matchup on the offense end. He is quick for his size and strong. One on one he is a tough cover, even last year as an undersized Center. If Pena can shut down Nelson he is a very good defender. It should be a good test for both players.

The flipside is Nelson while a good rebounder the jury is out a bit on his defense. Pena will be a good test for how much he has improved there.

Honestly, I think the front court match up may favor UCLA (depending on Smith) and if that decides the game UCLA may win. But, see below, the backcourt favors Villanova and that could be the key.

How is Malcolm Lee's health heading into this game?

As of my writing, I don't have an answer.  He wants to play.  He will likely play Friday.  However, even if he does play he may be limited.  His backup, Tyler Lamb is a very good defender but still raw on the offensive end.  Also a limited Lee or not playing Lee really hurts UCLA at MSG because he is our most experienced player and Captain.

What's your prediction for how this game plays out?

This is our first road game and we are still coming together. I think Villanova has the advantage in experience and playing so close to home. UCLA is so young, and while you never know, objectively Villanova is rightly the favorite. Barring injury, UCLA will be much better come March.

And make sure to check out my answers to DCBruin's preguntas over at Bruins Nation!