UCLA Preview: Low Ceiling, High Floor?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 5th, 2015

In the next three weeks leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite will be evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Today’s stop: Westwood.

UCLA Bruins

Steve Alford has been in Westwood for two seasons now and he’s got consecutive Sweet Sixteens under his belt. For the first time in his tenure, he’s got a complete roster that is balanced between the frontcourt and the backcourt. And he’s got the makings of terrific recruiting classes started for the next two seasons. And yet, somehow, if you were to listen to certain segments of the notoriously tough UCLA fan base, you would think that the sky was falling. There are very high standards when you’re the head coach of a program with 11 national titles already in the rafters, but given the recent (and by recent, the last 40 years) history of the program, Alford is far ahead of the game. Still, barring a shocking development, this particular Bruins’ team is not likely to bring home banner #12. At UCLA, that all too often qualifies as a disappointment.

This Pair Of Alfords Has Have Had A Strong First Two Seasons In Westwood (AP Photo)

This Pair Of Alfords Has Have Had A Strong First Two Seasons In Westwood. (AP Photo)

Strengths. The Bruins’ biggest positives this season, especially compared with Alford’s previous two years, are two things: stability and depth. In Alford’s first year, there were the common questions associated with a new regime coupled with questions about frontcourt depth and the ability of freshmen to earn big minutes. Last season there was life without Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams and a short bench that forced players like Gyorgy Goloman, Thomas Welsh and Noah Allen into roles they weren’t ready for. This year? The Bruins have the same three returning starters — Bryce Alford, Tony Parker, Isaac Hamilton — that they planned to have all along, plus the guys who got bonus minutes last year. Throw in a pair of highly-regarded freshmen guards and combo forward Jonah Bolden making his debut after a year as a partial qualifier and you’ve got a deep UCLA team without many obvious holes in the lineup.

Weaknesses. UCLA was not great defensively last year but it progressed to the point where the Bruins were about as good as that roster of players could have been. There were offensive issues, however, throughout the season. In conference play, the Bruins were seventh in effective field goal percentage and eighth in free throw rate. Both of those numbers can be traced back to Alford and Hamilton, players who are at their best around the perimeter rather than attacking the basket. For instance, Alford took just 14.4 percent of his field goal attempts last season at the rim and made just 46.8 percent of those; Hamilton was only slightly better, taking 20.6 percent of his shots there while making 58.6 percent. With attacking guard Norman Powell gone, freshmen guards Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday are going to have to live up to their reputations for attacking in order to bring more balance to the UCLA offense.

Non-Conference Tests. Even the biggest UCLA detractor has to give the Bruins credit for going out of their way to schedule tough this season. They’ve got three of the preseason AP Top 10 already on their schedule (Kentucky; at Gonzaga; North Carolina at a neutral site), with Kansas a distinct possibility in the Maui Invitational. For good measure there will be a couple other games against good competition in Maui with home games against talented local mid-majors Pepperdine and Cal Poly also on the docket. After last year’s non-conference debacles (remember Kentucky’s embarrassment of the Bruins in Chicago?), credit to Alford for taking another swing.

After Last Season's Non-Conference Disasters, UCLA Re-Upped With Another Challenging Schedule

After Last Season’s Non-Conference Disasters, UCLA Re-Upped With Another Challenging Schedule. (CBS)

Toughest Conference Stretch. The end of February looks to be the make-or-break stretch for the Bruins. They get to renew their love affair with Arizona in the desert on a Friday night a couple days before Valentine’s Day. Even if they aren’t hung over from the candy hearts and chocolates that Wildcats’ fans are bound to throw their way, Arizona State two days later will be tough. Then it is back home for Utah and Colorado before making their Bay Area trip to face hyper-talented Cal followed by Stanford. It also doesn’t look like the Pac-12 schedule-maker did the Bruins any favors, making them face perhaps the toughest one-two punch in the conference this year – the Oregon schools – to wrap up the season.

Biggest Story. There is never a shortage of stories in Tinseltown, but one to keep an eye on this season is the play of junior point guard Bryce Alford. A quick perusal of the numbers shows a lot to like about the now-veteran: 92 made threes at a 39 percent clip; an 83.8 percent free throw conversion rate; assists on 26.4 percent of teammates’ baskets; a 111.0 offensive rating (all numbers via KenPom.com). Yet up and down the conference, he’s regularly ripped as a ball-hogging, conscience-free “Daddy’s boy.” Sure, there are some significant holes in his game that need to be patched. His 40.2 percent two-point conversion rate is awful. He could stand to (and probably will) dial back his turnovers a notch. And defensively, he can be a liability against bigger guards. But on the whole, he’s a great offensive player who makes his teammates better. Remember above where we lamented the junior’s inability to finish around the rim? Balance that with that fact that 45 percent of the assists he handed out ended up with his teammate finishing at the basket, a sure sign of a point guard getting his guys good looks. And his ability to create his own shot? Only 58 percent of his made three-pointers came off a teammates’ assist. Even Mighty Joe Young got a helper from a buddy on 70 percent of his threes, while most guys around the country see that number up in the range of the 90s. Again, yes, there are some holes in his game that need to be patched, but Alford’s two seasons in Westwood have been tremendous and there is plenty of reason to expect improvement. The question is when will those inclined to dismiss his game ever catch on?

If Everything Goes Right… Alford’s game takes another step forward. The Hamilton that showed up in March last season makes more regular appearances this year. Tony Parker finally puts it all together as a senior. And Jonah Bolden is in the mix for conference Freshman of the Year. All that and still this Bruins’ team is probably no better than third in the conference standings. Still, as UCLA has shown the last two seasons during March, if you get things together at the right time and you catch a lucky break or two, another Sweet Sixteen appearance is a possibility.

Tony Parker will be tasked with a lot this season. (AP)

Tony Parker will be tasked with a lot this season. (AP)

If Nothing Goes Right… The Bruins may be one of those teams without a very high ceiling but with a pretty high floor. In other words, while no one should count on a deep NCAA Tournament run from this group, this is a team that should compete for a top-four conference finish and should skate into a happy and stress-free Selection Sunday. But, what’s the worst that can happen? Alford’s game remains overly reliant on jumpers; Hamilton doesn’t progress; Parker can’t find a way to stay out of foul trouble; Bolden, Ali and Holiday look like the freshmen they are; and none of the supporting cast takes a step forward. Even in that disappointing case, UCLA will still be good but without building much hope for the future.

Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG Bryce Alford (Jr, 6’3”, 180 lbs, 15.4 PPG, 4.9 APG, 39.1 3FG%)
  • SG Isaac Hamilton (So, 6’5” 185 lbs, 10.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.2 APG, 38.8 3FG%)
  • G Aaron Holiday (Fr, 6’1”, 185 lbs)
  • PF Jonah Bolden (Fr, 6’10” 215 lbs)
  • C Tony Parker (Sr, 6’9” 260 lbs, 11.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG)

Three of these five spots are locked up, with Alford, Hamilton and Parker dialed into the starting lineup. Bolden is the likely fourth starter, but the fifth remains a question mark and is something that could change based on the opponent. If the Bruins want to go big, they can start Thomas Welsh up front alongside Parker and shift Bolden out to the wing. If they want to go small and quick, either Holiday or Ali could make for a three-guard lineup with Bolden at the four.

Key Reserves

  • C Thomas Welsh (So, 7’0” 245 lbs, 3.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.1 BPG in 15.7 MPG)
  • G Prince Ali (Fr, 6’3” 190 lbs)
  • PF Gyorgy Golomon (So, 6’11” 215 lbs, 1.3 PPG, 1.5 RPG in 10.8 MPG)
  • SF Noah Allen (Jr, 6’7”, 215 lbs, 1.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG in 11.4 MPG)

Welsh seems poised for a big jump forward this season. From about the middle of Pac-12 play on last season, he was consistently very goodin limited minutes. Although foul trouble can be an issue with him, he seems poised to turn in about 25 good minutes on a nightly basis this year. Golomon is also an intriguing frontcourt prospect but is dealing with a stress fracture in his leg that will keep him out until about early December. Newcomers Alex Olesinski and Ikenna Okwarabizie could get minutes early in his stead.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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