Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Wednesday, December 7, 2016 at 3:38 PM
UCLA basketball came into the season on a downward trend under the leadership of fourth-year head coach Steve Alford. After starting his tenure in Westwood with a 26-8 season followed by a Sweet 16 trip, Alford regressed to 20-13 the following year. Fortunate bracket breaks in the NCAA Tournament allowed him to get to the Sweet 16 again and cover it up, but there was no covering up last year’s 15-17 debacle. Alford followed the modern method of rebuilding a program—he got himself a couple of dynamic freshmen and suddenly UCLA looks like the real deal again.
To call Lonzo Ball “dynamic” probably doesn’t do the young man justice. At 6’6” he can score and rebound (15ppg/5 rebounds per game), but more than that his court vision is tremendous. He averages nine assists per game and gives the city of Los Angeles the kind of big point guard they haven’t seen since a fellow named Magic was playing in the NBA. Ball is a “one-and-done” player. He’s aiming to be the first pick in the draft. Alford’s aiming for a national title. Their interests coincide this season.
T.J. Leaf is another freshman and he has all the makings of a lottery pick himself. Leaf averages 17 points/9 rebounds per game in the young season and he carved up Kentucky in last Saturday’s 97-92 win at Rupp Arena that lifted UCLA to #2 in the polls. Leaf goes 6’10” and along with 7’0” junior Thomas Welsh, insures the Bruins will never be pushed around underneath.
This alone is enough to make UCLA a serious threat to win it all, but there’s a lot more. Isaac Hamilton is pouring in 18ppg from the wing. The coach’s son, Bryce Alford, can shoot the ball like his daddy once did at Indiana and is hitting 42 percent from three-point range. Aaron Holiday is a solid sophomore guard who can handle the ball and provide some protection if Ball gets into foul trouble or needs a break.
The Bruins have played two big games thus far. Besides the Kentucky win, they also knocked off Texas A&M 74-67 at the end of November. You may recall the Aggies ended up tying Kentucky for the SEC regular season title a year ago. What we learned in these games is that the component parts of UCLA are meshing well, especially on the defensive end. They held A&M to 40% shooting from the floor and Kentucky to 41%. Those are the kinds of defensive numbers that win championships.
Of course championships aren’t won in November or December either. Steve Alford’s career track as a head coach isn’t bad, but there are good reasons to be skeptical of whether he can take a team all the way. Particularly when it requires investing at a short 10-1 price. While the low price is the bad news, the good news is that it won’t go much lower for a while, so there is time to evaluate UCLA.
That’s what makes the rest of December so intriguing. The Bruins host Michigan on Saturday night. The week after that they play Ohio State. UCLA opens Pac-12 play on December 28 against Oregon, the defending league champs and perennial contender now under Dana Altman. This Bruin team has the horses to run the distance. Let’s watch and see if they keep growing as a basketball team.