Time for part 7 of our Pac-12 preview. We are now getting into the top half of the conference and, spoiler alert, from here on out, we're talking about teams I expect to be dancing in March.
This next nemesis is a long-time nemesis. If Arizona is the No. 1 West Coast team of the last 30 years, this Pac-12 foe is 1a. Next up: The UCLA Bruins.
Steve Alford is entering his third season at the helm for the Bruins. His first two seasons have gone swimmingly, both seasons ending in the Sweet Sixteen. Before UCLA, Alford spent eight years at Iowa and then six years at New Mexico. He's had a good amount of success everywhere he's gone. But he finds himself in unfamiliar territory now.
At Iowa and New Mexico, he had no real expectations to live up to. Now, he's expected to live up to, more often than not, unfair expectations. Now everything Alford does is in the LA spotlight. There were already rumblings of frustration over the usage of star recruit, Kevon Looney last season. Plus, a lot of eye rolling over the usage of his son, Bryce Alford (more on that later). And people were none too pleased that UCLA got into last year's tourney as an 11-seed. So are two-straight Sweet Sixteens enough in his first two seasons? It should be. But at one of the premier, legendary programs in the nation, a place that demands results, in a city that should be INCREDIBLY easy to recruit in...people sure do like to nitpick.
Now about that eye rolling I mentioned earlier: Admittedly, calling Bryce Alford a star feels like a bit much. But, he is the top returning scorer and the face of the program. Whether that's a good thing or not can be debated in another spot at another time. But this much is true: With Norman Powell graduated, Bryce Alford is the undisputed offensive leader of this team. Last year, Powell averaged 16.4 points on 13 shots per game. Alford averaged 15.4 points on 12 shots per game. With Powell's usage gone, Alford will look to shoot early, often, all the time, from tip to buzzer. Alford shot 39.6% from the field last year. That will need to improve. On the bright side, he shot 39.1% from 3, where more than half his shots came from. There will be nights when Alford's shooting wins UCLA games. And there will be nights when his shooting takes them out of it. Live and die by the 3, UCLA will.
Games versus Arizona...
Jan. 7 @ Pauley Pavilion
Feb 12 @ McKale Center
The Projected Starting Five...
C Thomas Welsh
F Tony Parker
F Jonah Bolden
G Isaac Hamilton
G Bryce Alford
Senior forward, Parker, is the final holdover from the Ben Howland era. Junior guards, Alford and Hamilton return to the starting lineup. Sophomore center, Welsh, brings elite size to the starting lineup. The big wild card: redshirt freshman, Jonah Bolden. Rivals.com had him as the 32nd-best recruit of 2014 but he was ruled ineligible last season. This kid is 6'10'' and moves/plays like a guard. Freshman guards, Prince Ali (great name) and Aaron Holiday (brother of former Bruin/current New Orleans Pelican, Jrue Holiday) could see some spot starts along the way.
The Best Case Scenario...
Bryce's percentages go up, their size in the middle intimidates, the freshmen are difference makers, and Jonah Bolden is the real deal. Long winded as that may sound, it doesn't get any better than that for the Bruins. They'd have themselves a top-3 finish in the conference, be right back in the dance and push their way to a third-straight Sweet Sixteen.
This team will sorely miss Norman Powell. Even if Bryce Alford's shooting improves, he can't be expected to average over 20 points a game. He's also still a defensive liability. Last year's Bruins ranked 67th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom,com. And that was with Powell, a great perimeter defender. There's too many question marks for me to fully believe in this team. I've got them at 6th place, 10-8 in the conference, and one of the last four in the NCAA tournament.