Despite losing two of last season's top three scorers, UCLA enters 2011-12 with high expectations thanks to its tremendous frontline duo of Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith.
While Smith looks poised to build on his impressive freshman campaign, Nelson's status for Friday night's opener remains unclear after suffering a left ankle injury earlier in the week.
The 17th-ranked Bruins could be short-handed when they face Loyola Marymount at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, where they'll play the majority of their home games while Pauley Pavilion undergoes renovations.
After missing out on the 2010 NCAA tournament, UCLA bounced back to finish second in the Pac-10 last season, posting a 23-11 record overall and 13-5 mark in conference play. The Bruins went on to defeat Michigan State 78-76 in the second round of the NCAAs before falling to second-seeded Florida 73-65.
While it won't be easy to replace Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt, who averaged a combined 25.9 points last season before leaving early for the NBA draft, the Bruins like their chances of contending in the Pac-12.
"It just makes all the returning players more confident and then it gives the people coming in something to kind of live up to and know what's expected of them," Nelson said. "We're just going to try and build on that and pick up where we left off."
Nelson, who finished third in the conference with an average of 9.1 rebounds and first on the team with 13.9 points per game in 2010-11, was injured during Tuesday's practice. X-rays came back negative and while coach Ben Howland said it wasn't a sprain, he added "it could be serious."
While losing Nelson for a significant period of time would be a big blow, UCLA has plenty of size with 11 of its scholarship players listed at 6-foot-8 or taller - most notably Smith.
The 6-10 Smith averaged 10.9 points and 6.3 boards in 33 games - 15 starts - last season. Plagued by foul trouble and weighing in at over 300 pounds, he played over 30 minutes just twice. After shedding 10 pounds over the summer, however, Smith seems to have a renewed focus.
"One of my goals this year is to be more mature with everything," Smith said. "Last year I had some immature moments ... I got reprimanded by the Pac-10, I was getting in foul trouble, blaming the refs. All that's on me now."
During the Bruins' only exhibition game, Smith scored 26 points in an 80-72 win over Cal State San Bernardino on Sunday.
In addition to Smith, UCLA is expecting big things from 6-10 twin forwards David and Travis Wear, who should contribute immediately after sitting out last season after transferring from North Carolina.
"There will definitely be times when we have three real big players on the frontline," Howland said. "We'll give up some things maybe defensively, I hope not too much, but we should be a very good rebounding team at both ends of the floor."
The Bruins will play 14 games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena - their home court from 1959-65 - and four at the Honda Center in Anaheim before returning to Pauley Pavilion in 2012-13.
"Not being in Pauley this year is definitely a logistical nightmare. I know it's harder to get to downtown than it is to get to here from a lot of places," Howland said. "It's going to be a mental toughness issue to be able to deal with the travel and logistics."
Senior guard Lazeric Jones returns after averaging a team-best 3.6 assists. His backup, Jerime Anderson, sat out Sunday's exhibition contest and will serve the second of a two-game suspension for pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges involving the theft of a laptop on campus in July.
The Lions (11-21, 2-12 West Coast) return four starters - including preseason all-WCC selection Drew Viney, who led the team with averages of 17.2 points and 6.6 rebounds. Viney, however, is expected to miss all of November after undergoing surgery on his left foot.
With Viney sidelined, Loyola Marymount will likely look to redshirt junior Jarred DuBois and Ashley Hamilton to pick up the pace. DuBois and Hamilton scored a combined 36 points during a 94-49 exhibition victory over LaVerne on Nov. 1.
UCLA has taken 12 straight meetings in this series and holds a 15-2 advantage against the Lions.