How Long Can UCLA Last Without More Depth?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 21st, 2017

So UCLA is already four games into its season and its 3-1 start has been reduced to a footnote while Lavar Ball and President Trump usurp air, airtime and attention better spent on literally any other aspect of human life by any other humans on the planet. Bringing the focus back on to the court, however, the real questions begin for a team that is now down three scholarship athletes. What we know through those four games, though, is that the Bruins’ rotation is not so much a rotation as essentially a half-dozen players head coach Steve Alford either trusts or is forced to trust. Players in the former category include returnees Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday. Both were given relative siestas in playing 26 and 32 minutes, respectively, in the Bruins’ rout of South Carolina State, but Holiday played at least 35 minutes in UCLA’s three more competitive games against Georgia Tech, Central Arkansas and Creighton, while Welsh logged major minutes as well when he wasn’t in foul trouble (Creighton).

UCLA  (USA Today Images)

This grinding down of two players who will have to perform all season is clearly not sustainable, and it is the strongest indication yet that LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will likely not be held out for the entire season. The Bruins’ loaded freshman class fortunately includes two standouts — Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands — who refrained from jacking sunglasses in China, and both are already establishing themselves as indispensable cogs in the UCLA “rotation.” Even in a loss, not much changed against Creighton on Monday night. Holiday was superb, scoring 25 points on 11 shots and dishing out seven assists against one turnover. Although UCLA exhibited a fairly balanced eight-man rotation, five of those players were underclassmen and three of those five are freshmen. The Bluejays took full advantage of that defensive inexperience, putting up an Offensive Rating of 119.0 on the evening that included 11 three-pointers.

Given their short-handed roster, we might expect Alford to slow the pace this season — but paradoxically, UCLA’s average possession length of 14.0 seconds ranks as the 13th-quickest mark nationally. The Bruins are shooting a solid 36.9 percent from behind the three-point arc so far, but that is mitigated by an awful 63.9 percent conversion rate at the foul line (293rd nationally). It is impossible to presume what Ball, Riley and Hill might be providing in production outside of available minutes, but UCLA certainly doesn’t want to rely on playing Holiday and Welsh nearly 40 minutes per game.

So how does UCLA manage this?

Luckily for the Bruins, the schedule after tonight versus Wisconsin lightens until a December 9 date with Michigan. That game triggers a three-in-four stretch that includes Cincinnati (KenPom #14) and Kentucky (KenPom #8) before conference play begins on New Year’s weekend at home against the Washington schools. Alford seems to be playing the hand he’s been dealt at the moment, but that’s got to include finding a quintet that he can trust. Setting 20 as the magic number for NCAA Tournament consideration and conservatively figuring UCLA for 10 non-conference wins (per KenPom projections) means that the Bruins would need to go 10-8 in Pac-12 play prior to the conference tournament. We don’t know if the three missing players will be reinstated by then, but there would need to be some presumed lag time before they could be expected to contribute anyway.

Having just fired his football coach, we also don’t know how inclined UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero would be to relieve Alford of his duties should the Bruins fall short. In all honesty, we don’t even really know what the bar is for the fifth-year coach. There are far more questions than answers right now in Westwood, but among the certainties is the conviction that UCLA cannot grind its only two real established players into dust before January and hope to be competitive for an NCAA Tournament berth this season — even in a down Pac-12.

Richard Abeytia (41 Posts)

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